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How Parents and Caregivers Can Combat Compassion Fatigue

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Combating compassion fatigue, a beast that can rear its ugly head rather when one cares for children with disabilities 24/7, is essential for caregivers. Compassion fatigue is defined as the severe strain and stress of regularly caring for others, especially those who have chronic physical or mental conditions. Our intense role can take a huge toll on caregivers like us. So how do we combat compassion fatigue? How can we minimize its impact on us and stop it from returning?

We all know that self-care is helpful and important. However, we don’t always have the time or money to use the tools we’ve found work for us. This is where the strategies of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) come into play. DBT therapy was developed to help individuals manage painful emotions and decrease conflict in relationships. But you don’t have to enter psychotherapy to learn or use it. You can do it from your home by using three DBT strategies known as mindfulness, IMPROVE, and self-soothe.

Combating compassion fatigue starts by implementing a strategy called mindfulness. It is defined as awareness of our environment, bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings while accepting that we are experiencing whatever we are experiencing in the present moment.

This doesn’t mean we have to like what is going on, but that it is actually going on. Then we need to accept that our thoughts or experiences exist without having to judge them. This helps us to be in the here and now, while also being kind to ourselves.

Mindfulness helps us to gently remove our minds from the past (trauma or upsetting experiences we have had) and the future (our worries and concerns) and to stay in the moment. In the present, things can be either be very hard or quite calm for a short time. Here are some easy starting points for mindfulness:

  • Fully experience your food. What does it feel like in your mouth? What does it taste like? How does it smell? What does it look like on the plate?
  • Being mindful of how your body feels. Pay attention to how your feet and legs feel when you walk or how your rear end and legs feel when you sit in a chair.
  • Be aware of your breath. How does it feel in your nose and throat? How does your chest feel as your lungs inflate?
  • Focus. Spend a minute think about a short saying or mantra.

Once you get a feel for mindfulness, all of the following suggestions will hopefully have a much stronger impact on your well-being. Keep in mind that this is a skill that requires practice and will not be perfected overnight. Be patient with and kind to yourself. As they say, the only wrong way to practice mindfulness is to not do it at all.

When life is really hard and we are in the trenches, caring for our children 24/7, we don’t always have the time or energy for combating compassion fatigue. A strategy called IMPROVE requires very little time to make a huge impact on our mental and physical wellbeing.

I = Imagery: Picture your happiest memory, your favorite place, or the most relaxing place you can imagine, even if it doesn’t exist–anywhere that is happy or soothing to you. Close your eyes and mentally transport yourself there using all your senses as if you were really there.

M = Meaning: Examine your life and your difficult or distressing circumstances, or some part of your situation, for meaning. This can often help you cope with or tolerate the situation better, knowing that there is meaning even in hard moments.

P = Prayer: Prayer can be very important, and is flexible in definition. It can be religious in nature or come in some other form. This can include engaging in mindfulness or meditation, or focusing your thoughts and energy on a song, quote, sound or mantra.

R = Relaxation: In this case, relaxation doesn’t have to be a massage or luxurious bubble bath. It does mean relieving your body of physical tension. This can be done by using progressive muscle relaxation. Just tense your muscles for 3 seconds and then relax them. Do this twice for each muscle group, from head to toe. You can also stretch your body or engage in deep breathing by taking deep belly breaths and then taking twice as long to exhale.

O = One Thing in the Moment: Focus on just one thing for one minute. Focus on your breath, one thought going through your mind, your experience making breakfast, or how it feels to walk over to your child. This helps us move our thoughts from the past and future and into the present.

V = Vacation: The combination of COVID-19 and caring for children with disabilities probably didn’t allow for a physical vacation this summer. However, you can take a short break from your circumstances. It could be a one-night respite retreat or an afternoon with a friend. It could also be going to the grocery store, a nice walk, a mindful hot shower, or a hideout in the bathroom.

E = Encouragement: Self-talk comes into play here. Not telling yourself that everything will be perfect, but offering yourself realistic encouragement about how things are going and how they will be in the future. In addition, think kind thoughts. Think about what you would say to someone else who was going through your experience and tell yourself that.

That’s the IMPROVE strategy in a nutshell. I hope it makes combating compassion fatigue a little easier for you.

When our children are having a terrible time or are in the throes of a meltdown, we help them find ways to self-soothe. We need to do that for ourselves as well. On your worst days, when you feel like you are about to have a meltdown, when things are too much for you, use these techniques. Even if those days are every day. To self-soothe, we use our five senses.

Vision. Find something calm, beautiful or soothing to look at. In an ideal world, this could be a drive around town or a walk in a park. When that is not an option, focus on things inside your home — a lovely piece of art or the flame on a candle, a book with beautiful pictures, YouTube videos of exotic locations, or Google image search for pretty pictures. Give yourself a few minutes to look and just be.

Hearing. Listen to your favorite song, or consider relaxing music like jazz or classical. Listen to your favorite, no-stress podcast. Listen to the wind. Listen to your pet bark, meow or squeak. Listen to a child laugh or a baby coo. Listen to sounds of the ocean, rainfall, or another nature sound on your phone or white noise machine.

Smell. Notice pleasant smells in your home. Focus on the smell of breakfast or bread being made. Focus on the smell of flowers in your neighborhood. Sniff a scented candle or essential oil such as lavender, lemon, or mint.

Taste. Pick a food you love, then taste every single morsel of it. Eat slowly and savor. Or taste a delicious drink, such as hot chocolate, a special wine or a delicious tea.

Touch. Use scented lotion on your hands and feet. Run your hands over a soft blanket or sweater. Let your head rest on a comfortable pillow, or let your body sink into your bed. Feel the water run over your body in the bath or shower. Snuggle your child, your significant other, or your fur baby.

Although compassion fatigue packs a big punch, these strong and useful tools can reduce it and improve our well-being. These strategies work best when done regularly. I recommend picking a few strategies and sprinkling them in throughout the day. Most can be done in 1-3 minutes, and they will likely have an impact on your mood. Remember to engage in mindfulness often during the day without stressing yourself out. By doing so, you can reduce the stress of the day and lighten painful emotions.

This story originally appeared on

Getty image by evgenyatamanenko.

Originally published: October 12, 2020
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