Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Caring
Compassion fatigue is caused by exhaustion and secondary trauma, with both emotional and physical symptoms evident. While most common in healthcare professionals (i.e: nurses, therapists), empaths who are not in typical helping roles can certainly suffer from compassion fatigue, too. In fact, due to endless images of the after effects of COVID 19, I’m sure many people I work with are burnt out from an endless bombardment of bad news. If you happen to work in healthcare, let’s just multiply that stress 10 fold.
How do you know if you are experiencing compassion fatigue? While symptoms vary, the easiest equation to explain it is:
a typical Friday afternoon burnout + an inability to refuel/recharge as a result of listening to someone else’s problems = compassion fatigue.
In extensive cases, the active listening is in regards to a traumatic event that is not your direct experience, but leaves you unable to let go of the story as if it were your own. Burnout itself is from overdoing, while compassion fatigue presents with actual trauma symptoms, including, but not limited to: hypervigilance, guilt, anger, and difficulty concentrating.
We know empathy is a beautiful strength, so how do we care without feeling completely empty?
How do we avoid the cost of caring?
First, if you are a part of a workplace that requires exposure to traumatic events, advocate for support. Organizational strategies should include space for debriefing, peer support, team building and mental health days. If your organization offers significant paid time off (PTO), but puts you in a position where you are unable to take vacation due to staffing issues, bring boundary building to the table as a therapy goal. Ask your therapist to have a mock dialogue with you in preparation for a scarier conversation with your supervisor.
Secondly, honestly assess your self care routine. Do you wait until you are feeling completely cooked to plan a day on the couch reading books or watching toons? Are you relying too heavily on external forces like food, alcohol, or shopping to destress? Simultaneously, regular reflection strategies may help. Is there any room for journaling or five minutes of meditation at the end of your day? If the thought of writing feels daunting, a prompt of ‘5 things I’ve done well today’ is plenty.
Next, stay connected to meaning. What was your reason for taking this job, helping this friend, or watching this news program? If we increase our sense of hope, purposefulness and meaning, we diminish the likelihood of developing compassion fatigue. Sometimes, through a process of self inquiry, we might realize that we need to take an extended break from a given role - professional or personal - and that is an act of bravery.
A common thing I hear about in therapy is what it looks like to be a good friend to someone who is suffering, usually coupled with old, self defeating shame stories. If your friend is grieving or traumatized, I encourage you to do absolutely all you can to support them. However, sometimes the best thing you can do to help them is make sure their support network is expansive and they are also seeking clinical support.
Most importantly, a compassion fatigue assessment happens best before we find ourselves experiencing symptoms. If you’re reading this blog, please take 5 minutes to ask yourself some of these questions:
If I am checking in on a scale of 1-10, what does a 4 look like for me? How will I recognize when I am moving up the scale?
What do I have control of in my life (job, with a friend who might need me)? What do I not have control of?
What stress resiliency strategies tend to work best for me?
Is there any room in my day-to-day routine to insulate myself from chronic stress? What regular practice speaks to me, journaling, yoga, meditation?
A toolkit is essential, but if you’ll allow me to be forthcoming- the last question above is where the answer lies. We are incredibly resilient beings. A regular practice is far more effective in developing resiliency than one done on the fly as stress begins to escalate. If a 15 minute routine can simultaneously leave you more grounded and better able to help someone in need in the future, isn’t it worth it?
Take GOOD care, my amazing people.