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Check Your Gas Tank: Compassion Fatigue

Out of Gas. Burned Out. Done.

Compassion fatigue is common with caregivers, health professionals and first responders - image courtesy of iStock

Each of these familiar expressions may resonate with most of us juggling a work-life balance. However, when your professional life requires empathy and you’re operating on fumes, could this be doing a disservice to you, a client or a loved one?

There are many roles, occupations, and relationships that cause us to bear the burdens of the traumas of others. Consider the folks that we call when there’s a crisis: police officers, doctors, social workers, Momma, a spouse. Emotional weights over time can cause an erosion of our ability to feel and empathize. This feeling -- or lack thereof -- has been identified as compassion fatigue. Amongst professionals, it is also called Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS). Just like a repetitive stress injury (think carpal tunnel), without proper care and prevention there can be significant long term damage.

Hallmarks of compassion fatigue include anxiety, cynicism, apathy, emotional distance and insomnia. While compassion fatigue or STS may not be commonly used with the general public, health and emergency personnel have known of this condition since the 1950s. Psychologist Charles R. Figley is often cited regarding the transferred burdens that caregivers and other crisis workers in a fundamental quote:

“We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer. We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.”

According to the The American Institute of Stress, compassion fatigue differs from burnout and is easier to address. They cite that, “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).”

Suggested paths for recovery focus on self care and social support. In addressing solutions unique for social workers, Our Lady of the Lake University advises a greater sense of awareness of a fully lived life: “The concept of life outside work – or more simply, work-life balance – is critical to overcoming and avoiding compassion fatigue.” Escaping the loop of trauma is key in escaping compassion fatigue. In fact, Mother Theresa strongly advocated her nuns to take one year off to rebound after four to five years of engagement.

Whether you identify as a Caregiver, First Responder, Health Professional or other crisis oriented profession, self care can include a variety of activities that refuel your tank. Our gallery features a few options.

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