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Compassion fatigue mostly hits individuals who are in helping professions, such as nurses and social workers. However, with the way we are exposed to suffering and tragedy, we are also at risk of contracting it. This is how to prevent falling into the trap.

Due to the spread of coronavirus around the world today, we are being exposed to tragedy and loss on a daily basis. This has created a new norm. Unfortunately, the ‘over-exposure’ can create a desensitization that numbs us from compassion for another. 

“Compassion fatigue is, at its heart, a state of exhaustion and inability to empathize. It typically happens when someone in a helping profession — health care, social services, and the like — becomes overwhelmed by the stress they see and hear from the people they work with every day,” said Dr. Benjamin Caldwell, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the Education Director for SimplePractice Learning.

When someone who usually is highly compassionate starts saying or thinking things like “I can’t handle anyone else’s problems right now,” or showing a lack of interest or care even when people close to them ask for help, that’s a clear indicator. However, compassion fatigue can show up in more subtle ways, too.

A drop in energy, a sense of disconnection or a changed sense of what someone is willing to consider a ‘real’ problem all can result from compassion fatigue.

Dr. Benjamin Caldwell

How to avoid it or help the helpers?

In mental healthcare, Caldwell says professionals are often taught that the solution for avoiding (and if necessary, resolving) compassion fatigue is self-care. That concept, though, has been stretched to mean basically “do something you like to do that isn’t work.” 

This isn’t all that helpful, though, especially in times when everyone has their own personal and economic stressors to worry about. Besides, getting an extra cup of coffee or taking a day off — if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford to do so — may only serve to keep your head above water for a little longer. 

“Recently some researchers have linked compassion fatigue to the concept of moral injury,” said Caldwell. “In this line of thinking, we become overwhelmed when we recognize that we are participating in a broken system and, at times, have to turn away people in need. We see how our current tools can’t help everyone,” said Caldwell. 

These go against our morality and may run counter to why we got into helping work in the first place.

You also may need to go to therapy to avoid taking on other people’s problems as your own. “As a therapist, one of the most important skills I learned was to separate celebrating my clients’ victories, and sharing their disappointment over failures from feeling like both would be my fault. We all do the best we can to help people in need, doing challenging work in a demanding environment,” said Caldwell.

Compassion fatigue happens at home too

In the past, compassion fatigue was essentially seen in professional first responders, military personnel on the front line and others who are faced with managing chronic cases of caring for mass cases of life and death crisis.

Today, this condition has managed to infiltrate family homes too as exposure to suffering and trauma reaches us.

The added component our day offers is the instant exposure we are all vulnerable to experiencing.

Dr Cheri McDonald, PhD, LMFT and Life Mastery Coach

You do not have to be on the front lines of tragedy to experience the negative ramifications of trauma, which is a prelude for compassion fatigue. Crisis and calamity is broadcast into your world via TV, Internet, phones and social media at a push of a button.

This has inundated us with graphic and repetitive stories of despair, disaster and death. As Dr Amit Sood shares in his book, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, few of us can withstand such indoctrination unscathed. 

Our brains and hearts are naturally drawn to reaching out to a person in need due to suffering and pain. Yet, we cannot do so with the bombardment of witnessing masses suffering at once, unending tragedy day after day, long intense struggles physically, mentally and emotionally to name a few. 

What are the signs of compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue can trigger a loss of self that occurs on all levels of functioning physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It infuses into our being over time, days to years before it surfaces. As F. Oshberg, MD says so well in his book, When Helping Hurts:

Basically, it’s a low level, chronic clouding of caring and concern for others in your life – whether you work in or outside the home. Over time, your ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through overuse of your skills of compassion. You also might experience an emotional blunting – whereby you react to situations differently than one would normally expect.

F. Oshberg, MD

Fortunately, there are symptoms that can forewarn a caretaker and thwart the cloud of denial. They may vary in number and intensity, yet offer a great “check-in” to stay abreast, re-group and invest in self-care:

  • Feeling burdened by the suffering of others
  • Blaming others for their suffering
  • Pessimism 
  • Isolating yourself
  • Loss of pleasure in life
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Bottling up your emotions
  • Increased nightmares  
  • Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness
  • Frequent complaining about your work or your life
  • Overeating
  • Excessive use of drugs or alcohol  
  • Poor self-care
  • Beginning to receive a lot of complaints about your work or attitude
  • Anger
  • Denial
  • Apathy

How to deal with secondary stress

There are many situations that can lead to this secondary stress including, yet not limited to, critical care as being witnessed with COVID-19 or situations of high mortality rates as seen in mass shootings and war, or lack of support where shortage of people, supplies and resources as witnessed with this and most pandemics and epidemics.

Limited resources and stress in the home as individuals lack coping skill, knowledge and emotional regulations can also engender compassion fatigue. Fortunately, there are as many ways to avoid and combat compassion fatigue as there are reasons that cause it: 

First and foremost is investing in a consistent practice of self-care, starting with your intuition and seeking the wisdom of your inner healer.

Dr Cheri McDonald, PhD, LMFT and Life Mastery Coach

We always hear about the power of mindfulness and how a regular practice offers many health benefits, especially in combatting anxiety and welcoming a sense of peace and endurance. That’s because there is benefit in doing that and there is no better compass that can lead you to what calms your soul than your intuition.

“Begin with a simple practice of meditation with breath work and visualize a healthy body inside and out. No one knows you as yourself—spend some time listening and then using your intuition to guide you,” said Dr Cheri McDonald.

McDonald emphasizes that it’s important to keep “cultivating self-appreciation and confidence in yourself” as “confidence opens the way to listening to your intuitive stirrings.”

Re-calibrate your routine for self-care

As studies support, “people are creatures of habit, and routine offers a way to promote health and wellness through structure and organization, having a routine can greatly improve your health.” 

When enmeshed in crisis, we tend to kick into high gear of reactive mode to push through it seeking relief.

Dr Cheri McDonald, PhD, LMFT and Life Mastery Coach

This can paralyze you in your day to day function. So, get back to basics and make sure your routine promotes your health and mental wellness. Make sure to schedule some time off from the news stories and other sources of stress during your day, whenever possible.

Instead, fill that time with whatever makes you happy: watching uplifting movies, taking a walk, talking to a friend or family member, painting…The possibilities are endless, and only depend on you.

It will provide you with some rest and keep the mental fatigue at bay.

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