By Sonja Bethune, Psy.D.
Life is not merely to be alive, but to be well – Marcus Valerius Martial
If you’ve chosen to work in the helping profession or if you’re acting as the primary care giver for members of your family, it’s likely that you have experienced compassion fatigue. What’s that, you ask? According to Dr. Charles Figley (2017), Director at Tulane Traumatology Institute,
Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is 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. (para. 1)
Now, you might also be wondering what is meant by a secondary traumatic stress. This means that a person in the helping profession takes on the pain and suffering of the person they are trying to help. They start to see a decline in their own mental as well as physical health because of holding on to other people’s baggage, per se.
Difference between compassion fatigue and burnout
When I first heard the term “compassion fatigue”, my immediate question was, “What’s the difference between that and burnout?” According to Conrad and Kellar-Guenther (2006), burnout refers to “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced sense of personal accomplishment” (p. 1071). The key difference here when it comes to compassion fatigue is the experience of secondary trauma. Even though burnout is no picnic in the park, compassion fatigue can cut deeper into a person’s psyche and mental health. It can destroy one’s quality of life.
Personal anecdote – Words from a psychologist
As I was writing this article, I thought about my experiences as a psychologist. I graduated with my doctorate in Clinical Psychology in 2002. My first job out of graduate school was working in the assessment department of a psychiatric hospital in Los Angeles County. Basically, I would assess patients who were in crisis mode. They were typically expressing suicidal ideation. Some patients were accessing services voluntarily. Other times, an assessment at a hospital identified someone as a danger to themselves. Patients that required additional intervention, whether voluntary or required, were transported via ambulance to the psychiatric hospital that I worked at for ongoing observation and care.
I worked at this hospital for six years and recall specific points in time that I felt depleted of my happiness. I dreaded going into work. I heard stories about trauma and pain that most people would not want to hear. I saw a man with 18 surgical staples lined up long his wrist and arm and still remember the smell of that fresh wound. For a while, I allowed experiences like this to affect me.
While I loved helping these individuals day in and day out, it really was damaging to my spirit. I remember becoming quite irritable when assessing individuals who were calling out for help. My only defense mechanism was to “go numb”. I had to mentally not care as much. It’s sad, but true. Little did I know, but I was experiencing secondary traumatic stress. And my story isn’t that uncommon.
Many people in the helping profession go through similar experiences and share the same symptoms that I did. Consider the work of individuals in the nursing profession. It’s no surprise that when it comes to calling in sick, these folks rank in the top three (Sauter, Weigley, & Hess, 2013). It would be reasonable to speculate that this is the result of frequent exposure to contagious illness, but research shows that nurses are considered average to above average when it comes to being healthy (Sauter et al., 2013). This leads me to the conclusion that compassion fatigue is the real culprit.
Ways to restore balance
As a student juggling more than a few responsibilities, life can be quite overwhelming. You find yourself constantly working to catch up and worrying about being late with every assignment. You already know that the instructor won’t give you anymore extensions. And when you finally find some time to work on an assignment, you don’t have enough mental energy to produce the quality of work you know you’re capable of. You simply feel like giving up because it all just seems too much to bear.
According to the American Heart Association (2011), there are several physiological reactions to stress that we have to be mindful of, such as tension headaches, backaches, insomnia, clenched jaw, etc. Also, one’s mood and feelings can be affected. A person with chronic stress in their lives may experience anxiety, depression and feelings of being out of control. They tend to get easily agitated and can be forgetful. The question then becomes, “What can I do about this stress I have?” There are several ways you can manage your stress level. But you have to remember that practice makes perfect. When you continuously use stress management techniques, it then becomes a habit. So, let’s start thinking about ways that can make your obligations more tolerable and less stress-inducing. Here are a few to get you started:
1. Clear your mind and breathe – Don’t underestimate the power of deep breathing. Deep breathing is the most common technique one can use. According to Dr. Andrew Weil (2016), an important piece to keep in mind is that exhaling the air should need more time than inhaling. For example, when you breathe in through your nose, you need to hold the air in for 7 seconds, but when you need to count to 8 seconds when completely exhaling. It’s also best to do this cycle in a total four breaths.
2. Imagery – Imagery is another technique you can use. This is when find a quiet place and imagine being in a place that makes you happy. This is called your “happy place”. My happy place is in the mountains, but yours might be next to the ocean. Do this at the same time as your deep breathing exercises. You will feel rejuvenated after about 15 minutes.
3. Treat yourself – One thing you can do each day is spend at least 15 minutes engaging in a pleasurable activity. If you have more time to spare, then by all means indulge. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you should go binge on some doughnuts (you don’t want to crash from sugar) or spend money on these daily act of self-care. It can be as simple as taking a walk outside during your lunch break, study break, or when you get home from work. It’s important to make time for YOU!
4. Organize your study space – If you are working or studying in a disorganized workspace, your mind might also feel cluttered and disorganized. Remove all unnecessary papers, gadgets, extra pens, cups, etc. from the top of your desk and put them in their appropriate places. Also, you should take down anything off your wall that tends to grab your attention and distracts you throughout the day, such as your “inspirational quotes” calendar.
5. Learn to say “NO”! – Being someone who is naturally inclined to help, you may start to feel resentful about these asks. It can be mentally draining. For instance, you may pick up extra shifts at work, causing you to be late with assignments for school. This just puts you further behind, which leaves you even more overwhelmed. Time and time again, I’ve seen how students put more on their plate than is manageable. Just know your limits. Give yourself permission to let others know that you aren’t able to help, as difficult as this may be. Remind yourself that feeling guilty isn’t an option. By learning to set limits with others and with yourself, you will see the difference in your level of productivity and acquired knowledge through work and studying.
6. Rid yourself of time burglars – Do you ever think to yourself, “Where did all the time go?” or “What did I do with my time today?” One reason for this bewilderment is that you are allowing things and/or people to steal the time away from you. How many times have you been at your computer busy working away and someone sends you an instant message? How many times during the day do you check your phone for text messages? How often do you check social media websites while you are supposedly “working”? You might even receive an e-mail to your personal e-mail address about the latest sale on your favorite electronic gadget or your favorite name brand clothing. This means, of course, that you need to go to that store’s website and find out what kind of bargain you can get because the sale always ends TODAY! Do you see where I’m going with this? You can turn off your personal cell phone during study and work hours and you can kindly tell your friends and family to refrain from calling or texting during specific times that you will be studying the most. Just start thinking of what your time burglars are and proceed with eliminating them one by one.
Struggling with compassion fatigue?
If you think that you may need some professional help to get your life back on track, there are assessments that can help you determine the next step to take. Take the Professional Quality of Life Self-Test, the Life Stress Self-Test, and the Empath test. These are found on the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project website by Dr. Charles Figley.
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Conrad, D., & Kellar-Guenther, Y. (2006). Compassion fatigue, burnout, and compassion satisfaction among Colorado child protection workers. Child Abuse & Neglect, 30(10), 1071-1080.
Figley, C. (2017). Compassion fatigue awareness project. Retrieved from http://www.compassionfatigue.org/
Sauter, M. B., Weigley, S., & Hess, A. E. M. (2013, May 12). Workers taking the most sick days. Retrieved from https://finance.yahoo.com/news/workers-taking-the-most-sick-days-162244024.html
Weil, A. (2016, May). Three breathing exercises and techniques. Retrieved by https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/
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