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Compassion Fatigue

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

by Ami Ji Schmid

What is compassion fatigue? How does compassion fatigue happen? Who is vulnerable to compassion fatigue? What are the signs that you have compassion fatigue? Once compassion fatigue takes hold, what helps a person heal and bounce back? What can be done to mitigate compassion fatigue - before it takes hold?

There is help. There are simple and effective techniques you can use starting right now.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue, a term coined by Carla Joinson in 1992, was researched and defined by psychologist Charles Figley as: “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.”

Compassion fatigue can result from exposure to a single case of #trauma, as well as from years of accumulated “emotional residue."

Who is Vulnerable to Compassion Fatigue?

Those whose work involves prolonged exposure to other people's trauma - including first responders, emergency medical staff, and others on the #COVID19 front line - are vulnerable to compassion fatigue (also known as secondary or vicarious trauma). Most vulnerable are those who are zealously dedicated to helping others, prioritize work, and (therefore) neglect self-care.

Highly Sensitive People (HSP) who are empathetic are also vulnerable to compassion fatigue. The collective unconscious regarding COVID-19 is affecting those who are acutely conscious of societal needs, and feel helpless to solve them. Pleas for support for never-ending world challenges may leave people feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed. Viewing violent or fear-based news events on television or social media can also cause symptoms of compassion fatigue.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include exhaustion, disrupted sleep, anxiety, headaches, and stomach upset, as well as irritability, numbness, a decreased sense of purpose, emotional disconnection, and problems with personal relationships. People experiencing compassion fatigue may secretly self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, gambling, or food. Left unaddressed, compassion fatigue can develop into clinical depression or #PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

What Helps?

The first step toward healing is: learn to recognize the symptoms and acknowledge that you're experiencing compassion fatigue. The second step is: reach-out to a good listener with healthy boundaries (who won't take-on your compassion fatigue). Share what's been happening that has caused your compassion fatigue. Talk freely, for as long as you want, as often as you want. The third step is: employ self-care.

Remind yourself that it isn’t selfish or self-centered to take care of yourself - it's necessary.

Can you recall the classic flight safety instructions? Before take-off, you are told that, if the oxygen masks come down - you need to secure your mask on yourself first... before helping anyone else (even if the person next to you is your child).

You can't help others if you're not breathing. Breathe. Take in a long, deep inhale of refreshing air. Exhale anything that's ready to be released. Take another full, cleansing breath, in and out. That feels good, right? May as well take two more. Now ask yourself: What do I need to do right now to take care of myself?

Here are some helpful, self-care tips:

  • Limit sensationalized, traumatizing output from watching TV news, reading newspapers, and following social media sites.

  • Regular exercise and healthy eating, a commitment to adequate rest and regular time off, and time in therapy all help offset compassion fatigue.

  • Self-care and spiritually-enhancing techniques like mindfulness, meditation or yoga; time with loved ones or in nature; and interests or hobbies outside of work help lessen the symptoms of compassion fatigue.

  • Garden, write, read, draw, play music, sing, dance!

  • Declutter. Beautify.

  • Rest.

Mitigating Compassion Fatigue

Some sources suggest that, while on the job, it is helpful to employ “psychic numbing” (the ability to turn down one’s empathetic instincts). Employing psychic numbing is said to free up cognitive resources to find solutions to the problems that are immediately in front of you (rather than becoming paralyzed by an overwhelming scope of need). I have not been able to effectively employ psychic numbing in a way that feels natural or healthy to me, so... although it seems like a reasonable concept, in reality, psychic numbing is not the technique of choice for me.

Instead, I'll break-down the simple and effective technique that I use in my work with my clients (and have shared with many others) - that you can start to use right now:

(1) Start with a Request for Help from a Higher Source:

  • Before your work day starts (or before each patient/client), take a minute to tune-in to your Source of Help (whatever that means to you). Use a series of prayers/ mantras that make sense to you. The following are some examples:

  • Help me to be a vehicle (or vessel) of the peacefulness that underlies all things.

  • Help me to be a vehicle (or vessel) of divine love.

  • Help me to be a vehicle (or vessel) of other sources of healing, compassion, and guidance.

  • Help me to have the stamina and strength I need.

  • Help me to self-assess when it's time to rest and recharge and follow-through.

(2) Imbue, Release and Replenish:

  • List the qualities and words that describe what you experience when you're at your healthiest mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual state. (Some examples are: clear, grounded and centered, stamina and strength, flexible and growth-oriented, refreshed and rested, connected, divinely guided, divine love, and peace). * Choose words that ring true for you.

  • Choose objects or pictures (to place in the setting where your work space/source of stress is) that remind you of each quality. Imbue each object with the essence of its quality. * The object now holds that quality. (For example, a picture of a calm lake holds peace; family photos hold connection; the sky outside the window holds divine love; a flowering plant holds growth and life; a statue of a spiritual figure holds other sources of healing, compassion and guidance; a carving from a tree holds stamina and strength).

  • When you feel yourself taking on any amount of a patient/client/other's emotional pain:

  1. feel it. (It's important to listen deeply, relate, empathize, and be compassionate)

  2. let it go. (It's important not to hold onto someone else's emotions. Their emotions will change; they'll let go of them. You can let go of them, too)

  • Try releasing the emotional pain through a big exhale.

  • Aim the emotional pain (being expressed) into an imaginary fire, water or the earth - where it will be purified.

3. replenish yourself.

  • Look for the object around you that holds the quality you most need at this moment.

  • Breathe the quality in. Feel yourself being filled with it.

  • Do this often. throughout the day. every day. for the rest of your life.

Looking for personal support? Contact Ami Ji Schmid at TLC Coaching and Consulting Services.

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