Recognizing and Managing Compassion Fatigue

Recognizing and Managing Compassion Fatigue

On 19 Nov 2014, in mental health, self-improvement

By Karen Vaughn, MEd, LPC, CEAP, SAP

Can you answer yes to any of the statements below?

  • I have had an increased number of “sick days.”
  • I have been feeling exhausted.
  • I have noticed myself being more pessimistic.
  • I have had work-related dreams.
  • I have anger toward my supervisor or co-workers.
  • I have engaged less in activities that I enjoy.
  • I have felt like quitting my job more than once.

You may be experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue.

The thought that working with people in pain can take a lot out of a caregiver is no secret. Compassion fatigue (CF) is a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion. It is common among individuals who work directly with trauma victims -- such as nurses, psychologists and first responders. It was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s. Research suggests that sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares and a general negative attitude. This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus and feelings of incompetency and self-doubt. Compassion satisfaction is about the pleasure you get from being able to do your work well. When symptoms of compassion fatigue are present, you do not feel positively about your colleagues or your ability to contribute to the work setting.

One component of CF is burnout. Burnout has been described as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. It is the perception of demands outweighing resources. You begin to exhibit symptoms of “learned helplessness.” It can be compared to the classical conditioning of dogs and the electrical shock experiment. Learned helplessness occurred when a dog was repeatedly subjected to an electrical shock that it could not escape. Eventually, the animal stopped trying to avoid the shock and behaved as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness can prevent taking any action.

While the concept is strongly tied to animal psychology and behavior, it can also apply to many situations involving human beings. When people feel that they have no control over their situation, they may also begin to behave in a helpless manner. This can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change.

Another component of CF is secondary traumatic stress. It refers to the development of problems due to exposure to other’s trauma. For example, therapists or emergency workers may repeatedly hear stories of traumatic events. This kind of repeated exposure to patients’ loss, pain and suffering can lead to similar feelings in care providers.

Dr. J. Eric Gentry, master traumatologist, asserts that in order to effectively deal with compassion fatigue, one must focus on the following antibodies: 

  1. Self-Regulation: Requires relaxation of your body.
  2. Intentionality: The ability to follow the path you have chosen for yourself.
  3. Self-validated Caregiving: The ability to give yourself acknowledgement and validation for the work you do.
  4. Connection/Support: The enlistment of three or more peers to serve as a support for you.
  5. Self-Care: Participating in activities that “re-fuel” you.

If you or someone you know is experiencing CF, it is important to develop your own resiliency plan by incorporating the above antibodies into your life.

For more information, contact BJC EAP.

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