Compassion fatigue is commonly known in the healthcare profession as the cost of caring for others with emotional or physical pain. Compassion fatigue is also a friendly term that can be used for many family members, partners, and/or care providers experiencing secondary traumatic stress disorder. In other words, those who work with the suffering suffer themselves because of their work or familial/friendship connection.
Am I Burned Out or Experiencing Compassion Fatigue? What is the difference?
Commonalities of Burnout and Compassion Fatigue:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Reduced sense of personal accomplishment or meaning in work
- Mental exhaustion
- Decreased interactions with others or feeling the to isolate self
- Depersonalization, or symptoms disconnected from real causes or not feeling like yourself
- Physical exhaustion, total lack of vitality and energy
Some of the distinct differences are Compassion Fatigue has a more rapid onset while Burnout emerges over time. Compassion Fatigue has a faster recovery (less severe, if recognized and managed early) while Burnout can be more insidious and often takes much longer to heal from or recover. For the purpose of this self-care and self discovery blog series we will focus on Compassion Fatigue or CF.
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
- Affects many dimensions of your well-being
- Nervous system arousal (Sleep disturbance)
- Emotional intensity increases
- Cognitive ability decreases (thinking slower, distracted, or mental fogginess and confusion)
- Behavior and judgment impaired
- Isolation and loss of morale
- Depression and PTSD (through vicarious learning, observation, and experiences of others impacted or ill)
- Loss of self-worth and emotional modulation (developing a sense of apathy and disregard for self)
- Identity, worldview, and spirituality impacted (altering your entire outlook of people, places or events)
- Beliefs and psychological needs-safety, trust, esteem, intimacy, and control
- Loss of hope and meaning (existential despair, or "sick in tired of being sick and tired")
Things To Be Aware Of When Managing Compassion Fatigue
First and foremost...give yourself a break! It is important to first acknowledge that developing CF occurred over a period of time and is a process. If you have been taking care of an aging parent or a child/spouse with a serious health condition who have demanded a lot of your time physically, emotionally and sometimes financially, these symptoms may emerge. It’s not a matter of one day, you’re living your life with a great deal of energy and enjoyment, and the next, you wake up exhausted and devoid of any energy – both physical and emotional. CF develops over time, taking weeks, sometimes years to surface. 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 emotionally flat (or indifference) through continued overuse of your skills of compassion. You also might experience an emotional blunting – whereby you react to situations differently than one would normally expect. Some report feeling completely depleted.
Helpful Tips for Managing Compassion Fatigue
Some positive things you can do:
- Find someone to talk to
- Understand that the pain you feel is normal
- Exercise and eat properly
- Get enough sleep
- Take some time off
- Develop interests or perhaps a new hobby. Can't think of something new to do? Fake it til you make it!
- Identify what’s important to you, do what is meaningful and what matters.
In sum, maintain awareness of things that cause you stress. Take care of yourself, nurture meaningful relationships, and allow for leisure time. Give priority to your own mental and physical needs by developing and working toward specific goals
Be careful and don't:
- Blame others, remember CF can often cause lack of mental efficiency, cloudy thinking, and judgement.
- Delay making important decision while experiencing CF. Don't impulsively look for a new job, buy a new car, get a divorce or have an affair.
- Fall into the habit of complaining with your co-workers, friends, and family members
- Work harder and longer. Overworking is often at the heart of compassion fatigue and its first cousin: vicarious trauma.
- Self-medicate with substances or things that may be addictive (i.e., common addictions: shopping, mindless eating, over eating or stop eating, drinking, gambling).
- Neglect your own needs and interests, listen to your body, reflect, and take self inventory.
- Feeling exhausted and unmotivated
- Having no patience for others
Practicing self-care can be a critical method of protecting yourself against compassion fatigue. It is not uncommon for those who are constantly concerned with the needs of others to wind up neglecting your own.
Those who practice good self-care are significantly less vulnerable to stress and compassion fatigue than those who fail to do so. So basically, a good self-care regimen will look different for each person, but it should generally include:
- Balanced diet
- Regular exercise
- Routine schedule of restful sleep
- Balance between work and leisure
- Honoring emotional needs and setting limits
Set Emotional Boundaries
It is important for you to set firm emotional boundaries in order to protect yourself. Remember, as I said earlier, empathy and compassion are generally at the forefront developing CF.
The challenge is to remain compassionate, empathetic, and supportive of others without becoming overly involved and taking on another’s pain. It is a delicate balance! I often experience some resistance when discussing limit setting with my clients. "Yes...but!" Setting emotional boundaries helps maintain a connection while still remembering and honoring the fact that you are a separate person with your own needs.
If you are paying attention and are committed to radical self-care, we can act on this awareness by rebalancing our life. If that is not possible, simply taking short breaks throughout the day to close your eyes, focus on your breath, or put your hands on your heart and send yourself some compassion can all make a big difference.