If you spend a lot of time caring for others who are under a lot of stress or dealing with trauma, you may find yourself feeling exhausted, irritable, and even physically pained. These are all signs that you may be experiencing compassion fatigue — also called secondary stress reaction or second-hand shock.
Now, when most people think of compassion fatigue, they think it must be like burnout — after all, we are all familiar with the concept of burnout, and many of us have experienced it at some point in our lives.
But, while compassion fatigue and burnout do share some similarities, they are not the same experience, and they typically require different methods of management. Where burnout typically occurs over time, slowly building and building until you are spent, compassion fatigue can appear suddenly and without warning. Additionally, compassion fatigue often hits harder than burnout, making it incredibly difficult to recover. This is why working on prevention techniques and strategies is the key to managing compassion fatigue. But, before we can get into these strategies, you need to know how to recognize compassion fatigue so you know how to notice it in yourself.
Signs and Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
As with any other type of stress, the exact signs or symptoms you display may differ from those listed below. This is because everyone handles stress differently. But, in general, compassion fatigue can be thought of as a chronic, low-level damper on your ability to care for and concern yourself about anyone — including yourself and any person or persons under your care.
The most common signs of compassion fatigue include:
- Reduced feelings of empathy and sympathy
- Exhaustion — emotional, physical, or both
- Feeling anxious, angry, or irritable
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling disconnected or isolated from others
- Isolating yourself from others
- Feeling a reduced sense of meaning or purpose in caregiving
- Experiencing problems in personal relationships — such as with family members, friends, or significant others
- Having trouble making decisions
- Not looking forward to or dreading taking care of someone and then feeling guilty about the feeling
While compassion fatigue can affect anyone who cares for someone who is suffering from trauma or under a lot of stress, it is most common in individuals who regularly work in a caregiving capacity. This can include therapists, nurses, and even lawyers who visit accident scenes and read trauma reports. But, while any position that requires you to provide care to an individual suffering from trauma or stress can increase your risk of experiencing compassion fatigue, the individuals who are typically most prone to this type of stress are mental health professionals, like therapists or counselors.
This said anyone who experiences any or multiple of the following factors is at a higher risk for developing compassion fatigue.
- Being physically threatened by someone under your care.
- Providing care to someone who is considered dangerous.
- Working only with individuals who have experienced trauma or suffer from depression.
- Being introduced to extremely upsetting or scary issues regularly.
- Working with individuals who are grieving or dying.
- Working with someone who has lost a child or has an ill child.
How to Cope with Compassion Fatigue
The first step to managing compassion fatigue is understanding your own stress levels. Take time each day to check in with yourself and assess where you are currently with respect to your limits. Are you stretching yourself too far? Are you feeling constantly exhausted or irritable?
It may help to keep a journal to write down your thoughts each day to help you assess how you are feeling. Keep an eye out for physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of compassion fatigue, and look for patterns in your feelings. This can help you identify your triggers, which can help you create more realistic expectations for yourself based on what you can offer without overextending yourself.
Commit to Your Health
Part of your new realistic expectations will undoubtedly revolve around helping you maintain a good life balance. This means taking time to assess where you are currently spending your time and energy and where you can improve this balance. For example, if you find you are spending all of your time caring for your loved ones or clients and not enough time nourishing your own areas of wellness, then it is time to make a change.
Commit to yourself. The simple truth of life is that we can love other people with 100% of our being, but if we do not reflect that same love and care on ourselves, we will not be able to truly express that love to anyone else or provide the care someone needs. So, commit to building and maintaining healthy habits surrounding sleep, nutrition, exercise, keeping up with healthcare appointments, and nourishing your interests and hobbies as well. All of these things are critical for good, healthy self-care. And after all, if we cannot properly care for ourselves, how can we expect to care for anyone else?
Set Boundaries… And Keep Them
As a caregiver — whether a mental health professional, healthcare provider, or even a concerned family member or friend — you want to offer all the support someone needs. But it is not always possible to do this on your own. There are limits that we all have, and surpassing these limits only harms our ability to provide care and support in any respect.
This is where boundary-setting can help. Boundaries can help you ensure that you are not over-exerting yourself in any given caregiving relationship.
But, it is not enough to simply set a boundary. You need to actively and intentionally ensure that you are respecting these boundaries. If you allow yourself to slip back into old patterns, you will not lessen your risk of compassion fatigue, and you will likely end up in this same situation again. So, make sure that your boundaries are clear, concise, and completely mandatory. Make sure your friends, family members, co-workers, and anyone else you interact with are aware of your boundaries. Ensure that these boundaries are enforced throughout your interactions — whether they are with family members, colleagues, or even clients.
Remember, while empathy and compassion are essential for any caregiver — such as a mental health professional or caretaker of an ill loved one — they cannot be directed only externally. Until you direct the same level of care, affection, and unconditional love towards yourself, you will not be able to provide the type of support your loved ones (or clients, if you are a mental health or healthcare professional) need from you.
Reach Out for Support
One of the most common symptoms of compassion fatigue is isolation or feelings of loneliness. Luckily, these feelings can be easily combated by fostering meaningful connections. You can make and maintain connections with family and friends, colleagues, communities, support groups, and mental health specialists. Each type of connection can help you get a different type of support, and more often than not, having a variety of connections can help you get a more holistic support system.
Even so, managing compassion fatigue can be extremely challenging, especially if you feel you’ve fallen into a hole that is hard to escape. But there is always a way out — even if you can’t see it. Connecting with a therapist or other mental health professional can be a great way to learn new strategies and techniques for getting out of your metaphorical ditch, healing, and moving forward with a better sense of how to take care of yourself as well as others.