“The world is going to Hell in a handbasket.”
Daily we are bombarded with unrelenting reminders that the world is an unsafe place full of death, disaster and evil sadists who revel in–or at the very least are indifferent to–human suffering. Every where you look, television shows, movies, social media, radio and the local newscasts you are assaulted by negativity and sadness. The word “news” has become synonymous with tragedy, loss and torment.
If you’re anything like me, all of the sadness, pain and anguish is felt and internalized on a deep and very personal level. And if you’re not careful you can find yourself overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, exhaustion and even depression–despite the fact that you have not personally experienced any tragedy.
This phenomenon is called compassion fatigue.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue–also known as vicarious traumatization or secondary traumatic stress–is officially defined as:
“feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by suffering or misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the pain or remove its cause”
The American Institute of Stress describes it as:
“The emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. It differs from burn-out, but can co-exist. Compassion Fatigue can occur due to exposure on one case or can be due to a “cumulative” level of trauma.”
In other words, it’s the stress of caring too much…
Initially, researchers found that sufferers most often work in fields or care for those who have experienced high amounts of trauma–such as first responders, nurses, caregivers, doctors, pediatricians, psychotherapists, social workers, etc… However, in more recent years, due to increased levels of exposure to catastrophic events and hearing tales of maltreatment–average everyday people are plagued by compassion fatigue.
Authorities in this field, such as Babette Rothschild, Charles Figley, Laurie Anne Pearlman, Karen Saakvitne, and B. Hudnall Stamm have researched this emotional malady and have found that medical personnel and psychologists–in particular–may experience trauma symptoms similar to those of their clients.
Their research shows that the act of simply listening to traumatic stories allows the emotional pain experienced by patients to be transferred to the person providing care through the deep psychological processes that accompany empathy.
Empathy is a double-edged sword that allows those who care for others to do so with precision, compassion and the “Midas touch” but it also brings with it suffering.
The more empathetic you are the more susceptible you are to experiencing compassion fatigue.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue
If you care for and work with others in a high trauma environment OR if you are a naturally empathetic and emotionally sensitive individual, you probably have and will experience compassion fatigue.
The first step in dealing with any issue or malady is to recognize the symptoms. Compassion fatigue is often mistaken as burnout and while they are kin to one another there are distinct differences and recovery from compassion fatigue is quicker and easier if you recognize the symptoms.
The onset of compassion fatigue can be sudden, whereas burnout usually emerges over time and lingers much longer. Compassion fatigue can take a physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional toll on you. Common symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
- Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion
- Depersonalization/detachment or disassociation
- Feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic or caregiver relationship
- Feelings of self-contempt or self-loathing
- Weight loss
- Diminished sense of enjoyment in career or caregiving capacity
- Disruption to world view
- Heightened anxiety or irrational fears
- Hypersensitivity or Insensitivity to emotional material
- Difficulty separating work life from personal life
- Absenteeism – missing work, taking many sick days–avoidance
- Impaired ability to make decisions and care for clients/patients/loved ones
- Problems with intimacy and personal relationships
And while this is a long list of symptoms it is not exhaustive. The bottom line is if you suspect that you are suffering from compassion fatigue it is more probable than not that you are.
Prevention and Treatment
Preventing and treating compassion fatigue seems like it should be easily remedied. Just stop caring so much…
For those of us who are highly sensitive and empathetic individuals and those who are called to care for and assist those in need of extensive amounts of compassion–not caring or caring less is not an option.
We can’t turn it off.
It drives us and makes us exceptional at all that we do. And it shouldn’t be turned off or muted. Your compassion and ability to empathize with others is a gift from God and a gift to humanity.
But it must be managed so it doesn’t morph into a weapon of self-destruction.
The good news about compassion fatigue is that it is preventable and relatively easy to treat.
Your current circumstances, your history, coping style, personality and temperament all
affect how compassion fatigue affects you and will dictate what you should do in order to manage your emotions.
Practicing self-awareness, self-reflection and self-monitoring will enable you to recognize changes in behavior, thinking and attitudes. And it is the critical first step to preventing compassion fatigue. Developing either informal or formal accountability and mentor relationships can also be helpful in spotting and managing symptoms.
Below are a few additional practical and effective preventive measures you should consider incorporating into your self-care routine:
- Reduce stressful workloads
- Get adequate rest
- Take regular vacations and “get away” frequently
- Seek therapy to process work/life problems
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Limit news, current events and social media exposure
Studies have also shown that maintaining a sense of humor, focusing on the positive, and practicing gratitude are highly effective when it comes to treating trauma victims and assisting them move past devastating events. When you experience compassion fatigue you essentially have become a trauma victim. Focusing on developing and maintaining a positive attitude is the first step in dealing with compassion fatigue.
Here are 3 other ways to treat and heal compassion fatigue:
1. Seek professional help.
Compassion fatigue is a place of emotional emptiness. You are drained, overwhelmed and incapable of truly rational thought. You tend to overhype things, lash out and are vulnerable to developing addictions and finding other unsavory sources of relief.
You have to be willing to seek professional help when it’s warranted. A close friend or mentor can help you make that decision and walk with you through the process. The quicker you get help, the faster you heal.
2. Set emotional boundaries
When you establish emotional boundaries you set a limit to what you allow in. You can’t watch certain television or news programming, you must limit your social media exposure and you have to surround yourself with people who are postive, uplifting and capable of pouring into you emotionally instead of taking from you.
You can’t make someone else whole from a posture of brokenness. Consider the airplane model for surviving a plane crash. Passengers are instructed to dawn their oxygen mask BEFORE assisting others–including small children. That’s what emotional boundaries do for you during your time of healing. They allow you to be ok before you attempt to help someone else. If you are not whole and attempt to aid others you could do more damage than good. Your goal is to always be a help and never a detriment.
Emotional boundaries don’t make you less caring, sensitive or empathetic. Boundaries place a temporary guard around your heart allowing your wounds to mend without risking further infection or damage.
3. Talk to someone who knows you well and who will hold you accountable
This is not the job for an acquaintance or superficial friend. This should be someone who will challenge you and ensure that you are practicing good self-care. He or she will not enable you nor feed into your negative thinking and feelings of guilt. Your accountability partner will be kind, gentle yet firm and honest. They will direct you to seek counseling when it is warranted and will go with you as moral support.
4. Engage in positive intentional self-care
Do the things in the “Prevention” section of this article with passion, intention, and fervor. Attack your self-care with the same intensity you use when caring for others. Make it your mission to be a better version of yourself so that you can return stronger, healthier and happier. This is the best thing you can do for yourself and those around you.
The true danger of compassion fatigue has less to do with it’s impact on the one suffering and more to do with those he or she serves. The most devastating result of your inability to manage and recover from compassion fatigue is that over time you lose your ability empathize.
Apathy sets in…
And apathy is the worse kind of violence and maltreatment.
Compassion is a gift. Cherish it. Protect it.
Humanity desperately needs your kind, compassionate and caring heart.
“Love and compassion are necessities not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” ~Dalai Lama