Expert Health Articles

Focusing on Self Care During Compassion Fatigue

The past two years have been extremely difficult for most of us. First responders, healthcare workers and mental health professionals have been affected greatly, some in similar ways as the general population, yet, for some, more impacted. We are seeing significant compassion fatigue in these fields.

Compassion fatigue is defined as a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others. It is sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress (STS). STS is caused by workers being exposed to secondary trauma experienced through caring for patients/clients that have directly experienced trauma. Burnout and STS are interwoven elements of compassion fatigue.

Some symptoms of compassion fatigue are irritability, blaming of others, cynicism, numbness and problems with concentration and focus. Workers may feel a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and a lack of professional effectiveness. There is also a phenomena in the medical world of “hyper-resilience,” wherein workers feels they have to be independent, strong and are not able or willing to express their inner struggles for fear they will be determined to be weak or incapable.

So, how can helpers help themselves? Below are some tips and methods to address compassion fatigue.

Self-care

Begin a routine of taking care of yourself by getting regular exercise (30 minutes a day and make it fun and enjoyable), getting adequate sleep (seven to nine hours a night) and making healthy food choices to fuel your body.

Social Connection

Reach out to your friends and family to get support. Make regular plans to get together, to visit and to re-connect. If not in person, video call or text your loved ones. Stay connected though social media. Volunteer somewhere unrelated, perhaps, to health care, to get out of your own head and more distant from your own worries. Join local or online support groups using helplines for added support or if you are experiencing hopelessness and/or suicidal thoughts. Remember, you are never alone.

Spiritual Connection

If you have been too busy for church, take time to reconnect with your faith family. If you don’t attend church but are faithful, consider a daily prayer practice or devotional meditations. Perhaps you define spirituality in a different way, so make space for that in your life. Get back to nature and recognize things greater than ourselves and the vast interconnection that exists.

Reframing

Changing one’s perspective is important to navigating stress. We often become attached to a reality that can become distorted. Catastrophizing, overgeneralizing and even black and white thinking can lead us down a negative pathway in our minds. It’s important to cultivate awareness around our habits and to take time to question the reality of those thoughts. Feelings are not facts. Checking out assumptions and having a “lens” person to bounce things off of can be very effective. If we can reframe things, we might feel less overwhelmed and negative. Reach out to a therapist, in person or online, to help you navigate any emotional issues you may be experiencing.

Mindfulness and Relaxation

A daily mindfulness practice is helpful to create a sense of calm and composure. The practice does not take away all stressors, but it allows us to better handle them. There are online resources that have guided meditation, as well as a number of phone apps that can be used to learn mindfulness techniques. A simple method is to notice your breath, then slowly moving into a gentle belly breath. Once you are comfortable with this, you can start to gently lengthen the exhale, which is even more relaxing. One could practice a body scan, noticing any tension in your body. Progressive muscle relaxation is also a wonderful way to easily release muscular tension.

Melinda Williams, LPCC, NCC, M.Ed
Psychiatric Center of Northwest Ohio