Accelerating the Compassion Curve: Who is Caring for the Caregivers?

It seems like every news feed or social media post you have seen in in recent months leads with the same sentiment: “In these uncertain and trying times…. 

We see worries abound about the spread of coronavirus and an overrun healthcare system; stressed out families and a potential increase in abuse or domestic violence; business closings causing financial stressors and the long term negative consequences for people living in poverty; existing structural inequities that will result in a disproportionate impact on people of colorisolated and vulnerable people not getting resources to support their physical and mental health suffering; and inequitable access to education, which widens the achievement gap and puts students even further behind. It is a heavy burden, and it is overwhelming to think about. 

A Reason to Hope 

However, there is cause for hope as well. Heroes are emerging from the ranks of our healthcare workers, educators, mental health professionals, social workers, community leaders and neighbors everywhere. People are putting in countless hours to give of themselves, learn new technology, think outside of the box and rise to level of need now upon us.  

Our social media feeds also have a steady drumbeat of people willing to help hand out free food from the school lunch program, pick up supplies for an elderly neighbor, support a small business through buying gift cards and take-out food, and host a virtual church service or party so that people feel connected to one another. At SaintA, we call this Accelerating the Compassion Curve. 

Beginning with Caregiver Capacity 

When I train and coach our Seven Essential Ingredients through my work at SaintA, we often lament that this sequential model of practice has Caregiver Capacity as the last ingredient. We say things like, “Its really number one. Nothing else is possible without this.”  

It is undeniable that compassion fatigue and secondary trauma are real. Situations that our caregivers are being exposed to right now may have an impact on their well-being long after this crisis has passed in the form of ongoing anxiety, intrusive thoughts and ongoing physical and mental health concerns.  

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) lists the following signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress:  

  • Hyper vigilance  
  • Hopelessness  
  • Inability to embrace complexity
  • Inability to listen 
  • Avoidance
  • Anger and cynicism 
  • Sleeplessness 
  • Fear 
  • Chronic exhaustion 
  • Physical ailments 
  • Minimizing 
  • Guilt 

      We know that being exposed to overwhelming stress takes a tollMany of us have experienced one or more of these things in the past several weeks. Yet when we are facing situations of crisis, focusing our ourselves seems less important when others are in desperate need. And even if we do engage in activities to promote our own caregiver capacity, for some, they seem ineffectual when juxtaposed with the scope of the challenges we face and therefore not worth doing.  

      Strategies to Accelerate the Compassion Curve 

      I propose that we look at supporting our own caregiver capacity not as a luxury to be considered when we have spare time but as critical personal and professional obligation. I say this because when those of us that are “helpers” experience high levels of compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and burnout, we cease to be “helpful”, either because we need to leave our role as helper or we lack the capacity to gauge if we are causing harm.  

      I encourage you to take a multi-tiered approach to your response to caregiver capacityThat is to say, if you are experiencing a high level of stress due to your role as a helper, a higher level of self-care may be required to mitigate the long-term impact on your well-being. This chart demonstrates how we can elevate our level of self care to ultimately increase our ability to continue in our helping role. 

      7ei Ingredient Strategy  

      Ongoing Response 

      COVID-19 Response 

      Regulation 

      Daily exercise; deep breathing and meditation 

      Increased dosing of regulation strategies short sessions 5-6 times per day 

      Relationship 

      Connecting with friends and family via web-based call; playing board games with a child 

      Engaging in support groups and debriefing sessions 

      Reason to be 

      Taking part in virtual worship services; reflecting on your vital role as a helper 

      Make an appointment for support through telehealth mental health services with people who specialize in supporting those in the helping profession 

      These are just a few examples that won’t be a cure-all for the challenges we face. But if we prioritize caring for our caregivers, perhaps we can emerge to a place where resilience is possible.

      Sara Daniel, MSW, LCSW 
      VP of Educational Services  

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