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Who Gives Care to the Caregiver?

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Sgt. Shane Sherer hugs his fiancée, Jacqueline Bennet, who was instrumental in his recovery from a traumatic brain injury he sustained due to a mortar blast. (Photo by Lorin T. Smith, courtesy of Madigan Healthcare System)

According to Dr. Charles R. Figley, psychologist and professor at Tulane University, compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those who help people in distress; an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it is traumatizing for the helper.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of caregiver you may be, you will feel those moments of frustration,” said United States Public Health Service Capt. John Golden, acting deputy director of DCoE’s Psychological Health Clinical Standards of Care directorate.

At the 2011 Military Health System Conference, Golden, who has more than 20 years of experience as a clinical psychologist and caregiver, discussed what works and what doesn’t when it comes to caring for the caregiver.

“I know from personal experiences, deep down in my gut…” said Golden. “Hearing things over and over again are grounds for compassion fatigue.”

Golden experienced compassion fatigue while dealing with trauma as a psychologist and shared four different traumatic events that affected him: working with sexually assaulted detained immigrants, hurricane survivors, combat trauma survivors, and the aftermath of a high school shooting. Repeatedly hearing the painful stories began to have an effect on Golden, but things got better once he got help.

People experiencing compassion fatigue have similar symptoms of those with post-traumatic stress disorder, Golden said. The good news is that both of these conditions are treatable.

Check out these tips that can help you minimize and manage compassion fatigue:

  • Listen to your body
  • Advocate for yourself
  • Don’t assume responsibility for another’s problems
  • Be flexible; don’t have an all or nothing attitude
  • Don’t over commit
  • Don’t anticipate what someone else might need
  • Take a break
  • Don’t take things personally

Avoid engaging in the following activities that can perpetuate or intensify negative symptoms, such as:

  • Substance abuse
  • Excessive spending or gambling
  • Eating unhealthy foods
  • Withdrawing or isolating from others
  • Caring for everybody but yourself

When your thoughts become overwhelming, make the choice to seek professional help, it’s the best thing you can do for yourself and reassures that you get back to caring for others.

*Compassion fatigue is the topic of the February DCoE Monthly Webinar – stay tuned for more information.

*Have you heard about the new toll-free National Caregiver Support Line by the Department of Veterans Affairs? You can now call 855-260-3274 or visit for resources specifically for you.

Comments (1)

  • Michelle Kozlowski 05 Sep

    That is AMAZING to find out that compassion fatigue have similar symptoms of those with post-traumatic stress disorder!!! I have shared this information with other mental health providers and it was news to them. Thank you for helping the country with the multiple issues related to the field of Psychological Health. We salute you!!!

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