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Compassion Fatigue: What it is and How to Cope

Compassion fatigue may be a term you’re familiar with, something you’ve heard in passing. This could be the first time altogether that you’re reading about it. Either way, it’s something you should be aware of–it can happen to anyone, but those who work with people in difficult situations are the most susceptible to it.

What is compassion fatigue?

Dr. Charles Figley, author of Compassion Fatigue: Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorders from Treating the Traumatized, calls it “…an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

It’s similar to burnout in that it can leave you feeling tired, stressed, and and preoccupied, but compassion fatigue is more than just that. One hallmark of compassion fatigue is the lessening of empathy and compassion over time. Unlike simple burnout, that’s something that can’t be cured by a vacation or a change in job duties.

What does compassion fatigue look like?

The symptoms of compassion fatigue are many and varied, but luckily they are fairly easy to recognize. They include:

  • Excessive blaming
  • Bottling up emotions
  • Isolation
  • Depression
  • Anger and increased irritability
  • Problems maintaining empathy and objectivity
  • Apathy
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, sleep disturbances, and hypertension

If these symptoms sound like something you’re dealing with and you think you may have compassion fatigue, try taking a self-assessment like this one from the American Academy of Family Physicians, or this more detailed one from B. Hudnall Stamm, a former professor and researcher in the field of traumatic stress.

How can I treat and prevent compassion fatigue?

There are a number of things you can do to prevent and help yourself recover from compassion fatigue. A good way to begin is to practice mindfulness. Being aware of your feelings and what is causing them is the first step towards treating and preventing compassion fatigue. Think about how you feel on a regular basis, and keep your ear to the metaphorical ground. Journaling can help with self-awareness and self-assessment, and can also work as a way to vent when things get rough.

Being aware of yourself and your feelings can do more that just diagnose compassion fatigue. It can help prevent it as well. When you’re conscious of the risk, and find yourself becoming aware of the things that can trigger stress in your life, you can find ways to mitigate the negative effects.

It’s also important to draw lines between your work life and your home life. As a preoccupation with others’ hurts is a large part of compassion fatigue, a good work/life balance is crucial to treatment and prevention. Learning to leave work at the office can be a trial, but there are some easy ways to start.

Create a transition between work and home–a clear way to delineate the difference between the two. Try to find some sort of ritual you can do every day that will help remind you that the workday is over. It’s time to focus on you, your family, and your friends–not your clients. Some transition ideas include:

  • Spending your drive, walk, or ride home thinking about the things you’re looking forward to doing once you get there.
  • Changing out of your work clothes and into something more comfortable right after you get home.
  • Spend a few minutes enjoying the fresh air outside before you enter your home. Use this time to let go of the work day and try relaxing any tension in your muscles.

One thing to remember as you work towards a better balance is the importance of saying “no.” For care workers, this can be a hard thing to do. Yet it’s all the more important for people who spend their days helping others. This one change can help more than most people realize. When you stop picking up extra shifts or helping with everyone else’s almost-emergencies, you’ll have more time to look after yourself.

After all, prioritizing self-care and healthy rituals is an important part of treating compassion fatigue. A good diet, regular exercise, hydration, and adequate sleep should be priorities. A healthy body can help lead to a healthy mind. But don’t neglect your head, either! Find activities that relax you or give you life. Try taking a long soak in the bath regularly or finding a new hobby that energizes you. Need some more tips or ideas? The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project has you covered.

Don’t forget to care for yourself in the workplace, as well. Make a point of finding ways to unwind a little between clients, or things that will help you relax and recharge on your lunch break. Make sure your day is filled with caring for yourself as much as it is caring for others.

When all that’s done, try to talk to someone as well. Whether it’s a friend, a loved one, a professional, or all three of those people, it’s important to discuss your life with others. Combating the isolation that’s so often a part of compassion fatigue will do wonders for your mental health. The people you talk with will be able to give you sympathy, and may be able to help you formulate strategies to deal with the stress in your life. Seek out communities of other care workers, health care professionals, and people who have suffered from compassion fatigue. They’ll be able to give you advice and commiserate with your struggles.

And don’t be afraid to seek professional help when things get rough! Family and friends are wonderful, but sometimes they can’t give you what you really need. When you space to vent after a rough day or a sounding board for self-care ideas just isn’t enough, a counselor or therapist will be more equipped to help you.