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Compassion Fatigue & What to Do About It

By: Dr. Dalite Sancic, LAC, MS

Compassion Fatigue is a term coined in 1992 by Registered Nurse Carla Joinson as a specific condition affecting caregivers and their ‘ability to nurture.' The chronic imbalance between the demands of the job and the psychological distress connected to being exposed to the suffering of others causes profound emotional and physical deterioration due to the inability for caregivers to recharge and regenerate.

CF includes two elements: burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Burnout is physical and mental exhaustion leading to reduced ability to cope with one's environment. Burnout involves fatigue, frustration, a sense of helplessness and reduced pleasure in work or other responsibilities. Burnout, though increasingly common, does not include the loss of the ability to feel compassion for others. Secondary traumatic stress is the stress one may experience when working with others going through trauma, including physical trauma such as serious injury, illness or death. People also may experience secondary traumatic stress through empathy with others who talk with them about their traumas.

CF has been attributed to those specifically in the health care field, i.e., doctors, nurses, veterinarians, hospice workers, therapists. In recent years, the spectrum of those affected includes anyone who is working to care for others.

Signs that one might be experiencing CF include difficulty concentrating and indecision, difficulty prioritizing tasks, intrusive imagery, feeling discouraged about the world, hopelessness, exhaustion and irritability, feeling disconnected, reduced ability to feel empathy, high attrition rates (leaving the field of work), boundary violations and cynicism. Factors that contribute to CF include current life circumstances (relationships, life changes, home life satisfaction), coping style, personality, tendency towards depression, inability to relax, poor self-care and substance abuse.

Effective strategies for reducing and healing from CF has become known as Compassion Fatigue Resilience.

In the work environment, CF can be reduced by having access to supportive management who is willing to regularly assess the workload and provide timely, high-quality supervision. The most highly rated reduction in CF includes individuals who have more control over their schedules and are able to reduce the hours working with traumatized individuals.

Personal tactics include strong social supports, increasing self-awareness through mindfulness techniques such as meditation, journaling, visualization and regular self care. The basics of self care include effectively monitoring nutrition and adequate hydration, quality and quantity of sleep and rest, maintaining access to social support, regularly experiencing a sense of joy in life, regularly engaging in some form of physical activity.

Avoid routines that reinforce the downward spiral. When people reach their emotional limits, it is natural to seek comfort and relief from this stress. However, it is crucial to select outlets that don’t feed negative addictive behaviors or remove the sense of self-awareness. Indeed, one of the keys to recovery and building emotional resilience is acknowledging emotions, not medicating them. Therefore, when facing potential compassion fatigue and burnout symptoms, try to limit the use of alcohol or medications that may weaken self-control and cause additional negative consequences.

While some people may have an innate ability for resilience, one essential element to building up resilience is recovery time. Chronic stress without recovery time can have damaging emotional and physical effects. Built into the recovery time should be activities or moments of contemplation that create opposing, positive forces to help push away the negative thoughts that tend to cling too long.

The key to developing resilience is to concentrate on changing negative life attitudes. It takes practice and persistence to reframe events positively, if it is possible, with the goal being to simply reduce overall negativity.

Dalite Sancic is a doctor of Eastern medicine at Moon Brook Medicine

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