When you are in a helping profession, you may give large bits of your soul to hold space for other people, leading to compassion fatigue. In this type profession, you provide a labor of love, and thus it is common to feel preoccupied with the suffering of the people you work with.
To understand compassion fatigue, it is important to know what compassion is. Compassion is a wonderful gift that comes from the deepest part of your soul. “It is the experience of deep empathy for a person suffering coupled with a desire to resolve their misfortune or remedy their pain” (Figley, 2002b; Stamm, 2002). Although compassion can be deeply rewarding and fulfilling, it can also come at a cost, particularly if you are frequently exposed to others’ traumatic experiences.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is a form of stress, burnout, or tension that arises from frequent and consistent contact with people experiencing trauma, where you may become preoccupied with the suffering or pain of others (Hunsaker, Chen, Maughan, & Heaston, 2015). In a helping profession, you may get up close with the trauma and suffering of others to try to understand their perspective and resonate with their pain. More often, you may not recognize compassion fatigue as it comes from wanting to keep helping, and also feeling overwhelmed from being exposed to other people’s trauma and suffering. Unlike other mental health conditions, compassion fatigue develops slowly over time and can go easily recognized.
Compassion fatigue can look like talking about your work while you are off the clock, thinking about the other person’s sufferings when you are resting your head at night, or simply feeling stressed not knowing how to solve their problem to the point it consumes your peace. It can cause you to slowly stop caring about yourself and others in your life due to the overuse of your compassion skills.
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:
Compassion fatigue can show itself in a range of symptoms and behaviors - it is known as the 22 symptom fatigue - because just like its experience, even the symptoms can feel exhaustive (Cocker & Joss, 2016; Clay, 2020; Stamm, 2010). Some symptoms include:
A sense of being detached or having decreased interest to care for others
Preoccupation with people you help
Mental, psychological, and physical exhaustion
Anger and irritability
Anxiety and/or depression
Intrusive thoughts and experiencing ruminating about the suffering of others
Being easily startled
Feeling helpless, hopelessness, and powerless about helping work
Avoidance of certain activities, situations, or people you help
Feeling like a failure as a helper and blaming yourself for not having having done enough to help the people who are suffering
Drops in productivity
Emotional numbness and sadness
Trouble separating personal and professional life
A decreased capacity to experience sympathy and empathy
Dysfunctional coping behaviors, e.g., misusing alcohol or drugs
Taking more time off work
Reduced decision-making ability
Decreased satisfaction or enjoyment with work
Steps to Healing the Wounds on the Soul:
The sooner you can begin to identify the signs of compassion fatigue, the sooner you can care for yourself and heal the wounds on your soul. If compassion fatigue goes unacknowledged and untreated, it can lead to other mental health conditions like clinical anxiety, depression, substance use disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Self-car may seem like an obvious way to treat compassion fatigue, however, it is something many people find hard to prioritize when caring for others. Research within the helping profession found that those reporting a greater number of self care interventions experienced lower burnout and compassion fatigue. Dr. Yazhini Srivathsal, a psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital said, “we need to make sure we are tending to our own emotional and physical well-being and needs while we are involved in providing care for others.” You’ve heard this many times before - you need to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help others.
4 Main Benefits of Self-Care:
Self-awareness allows you to acknowledge your pain to yourselves. This allows you to be better placed to understand other people’s experiences and reactions to pain.
Appreciation for the value of the process is built once you are more aware of your feelings and challenges. This awareness allows you to engage in a process of developing strategies or techniques that can be effective.
Externalizing the problem when devising strategies to cope with your own stress, anxiety, or burnout allows you to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. This level of self-care creates a protective distance between yourselves and the problems you face.
Containing the problem allows you to feel more prepared to contain negative emotions and facilitate healing. This process creates a pause between “this is me” vs “this is what I am going through. ”This is not YOUR life or who you are - it is what is happening to you - which means it is a behavior that can be changed.
Ideas for Self-Care:
Even though you may understand the benefits of self-care, finding how to start can still feel confusing and overwhelming. It is best to start with a quick self-care assessment with the following questions:
Do you believe you deserve self-care?
Do you have a go-to list of activities?
Have you made self-care a habit?
The responses will reveal different areas where engagement is needed when creating self-care plans. Focus on 4 areas of self care (mind- body - heart - spirit):
Cognitive/Mind: It can be stressful helping people sift through thoughts and emotions. It is important for you to feel that you can clear your mind of thoughts that may inhibit your personal and professional life. This self care calls for setting aside time each day to release your thoughts. Here are 3 things you can do:
Read for leisure. Taking thoughts away from other people’s trauma and redirecting them toward things to relax with and enjoy, such as books, can help.
Being aware of your inner self talk, inner thoughts, judgments, and feelings can alleviate compassion fatigue. Your cells are listening to the things you say and the things you do not say - choose wisely what you want to feed them - give compassion to yourself!
Use the VCRtool (validation, challenge, request) when communicating with others to express your thoughts and show compassion. This allows you to co-solve by engaging others.
Physical Health/Body: Caring for others has been known to affect people on a physical level since stress can increase body weight and fatigue. A self-care plan that addresses your physical health concerns while delivering compassion may include:
Drink plenty of water. Many people often forget how much energy is being spent listening, talking and holding space for others. Our brain is made up of over 80% water and our bodies over 70% - water is a vital energy source for you.
Get enough sleep. Without proper sleep, fatigue may make people less able to exert the needed concentration in meetings.
Try the 5 Senses Grounding Technique when you are experiencing anxiety, hyperarousal, difficulty concentrating, and other compassion fatigue symptoms.
Emotional/Heart: Find things that oppose the negative emotions experienced with compassion fatigue is essential for inviting balance into your life. For example, if a conversation was particularly sad or heavy, offset that by watching a funny movie. Other ways to balance emotions can include:
Practice using positive affirmations such as praising yourself. Positive affirmations can benefit emotional wellbeing by lowering stress and rumination.
Allow yourself to cry. You are STILL STRONG even when you cry. Crying is a release of the emotional build up so you can manage more. It serves to balance your emotions.
Start a gratitude practice. By redirecting your focus on the things that are going well in your life, you invite emotional balance and remind yourself that life is more than the person’s trauma or pain you may have been thinking about.
Spiritual/Spirit: Being involved with your spiritual side can provide relief. Spirituality is truly the belief that there is something greater than this day-to- day chaos. That can vary from God, nature, Gia, to energy, frequency, positivity, and your very own purpose, mission or legacy.
An example of how you can address your spiritual needs is setting aside time to listen to music. music connects to your soul, offers an escape into an alternate reality!
Make time for self-reflection at home, in nature, in a journal, or with a therapist. When you reflect - it moves emotions from the right/emotional side of the brain to the left/rational side.
Spend time in nature. The commute to the office, interactions with many people, and day-to-day administrative tasks can feel like too much at times. Escaping to nature is a key aspect of a self-care break.
If you feel like you do not have time to take care of yourself - it’s time to look at boundaries that you are setting. Helping others without nourishing your soul can be overwhelming and lead to compassion fatigue. As soon as you recognize the signs of compassion fatigue, take steps to care for yourself. It is possible to make the choice to practice healthy self-care while caring for others. How can we start to shift the dialogue of saying no to others into SAYING YES TO YOU! What a gift to be able to nourish your wounds and give back to yourself.!
Ektha Aggarwal is a licensed South Asian Therapist and CEO of Shakti Therapy and Healing Services in Los Angeles, CA. Ektha specializes in working with people of color to break the stigma around mental health and instill the concept of immigrant resilience. To learn more about Shakti Therapy and Healing services, please visit www.shaktitherapyhealing.com or email Ektha at firstname.lastname@example.org.