Compassion fatigue is a type of stress that involves physical and emotional depletion as a result of caring for someone or getting involved in situations that are emotionally exhausting. People experiencing this usually begin displaying a gradual lack of empathy or indifference toward the person they are caring for. Other symptoms include headaches, digestive problems, feeling overwhelmed and irritability. It affects people in nursing where over-exposure to trauma can lead to health problems for the nurses, and worsened outcomes for patients because they are at the receiving end of a burnt-out helper.

It’s normal to feel emotionally overburdened when you take on a ‘helping role’. And in most cases, a simple way to alleviate this is by taking a step back and making sure you’re taking care of yourself first. Trying to help a friend through a tough situation not only impacts you because you care about your friend and want to help lessen their struggle, but also because not knowing how to help to take away their pain can feel overwhelming.

Not knowing how to help to take away their pain can feel overwhelming.

I can relate to the symptoms of compassion fatigue: having worked as a medical assistant in Harley Street in 2009, I was exposed to hundreds of patients speaking about unimaginable traumas, always wishing I could ease their pain – but gradually I became numb. And not because I did not care, quite the opposite; I cared excessively, I just knew that such situations were battling for my empathy, my kindness, my compassion. I genuinely care about helping people (I love it!), but at that time of my life my empathy levels were dangerously depleted. I could no longer give the emotional attention others required from me.

I spoke to a local nurse about my experiences and asked if she ever experienced anything similar from dealing with patients: “Yes I have felt traumatised, especially if you are dealing with a patient that reminds you of that trauma. For example, I remember dealing with someone who had cancer. This brought back painful memories of losing a relative to cancer who died and left behind three children. It was very painful because they were very young.”

The American Institute of Stress website describes it perfectly: “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.”

We can’t be there for others if we aren’t there for ourselves first.

Mother Teresa, the beacon of compassion and empathy, understood the value of self-love and self-caring. She made it mandatory for nuns to take a sabbatical year from caregiving work, every four years, as a means to recuperate. She touted the message how this world requires healers, empaths, carers. But, giving these beautiful emotions to the people around us can sometimes lead to compassion fatigue.

After all, if empathy is the root of making this world a better place to live in, what happens when we feel bombarded every day with the details of local and global disasters, with every shocking crime, political scandal and climate calamity here and abroad that are saturated with pleas for attention to help? Sexual crimes. Terrorism threats. The Global Warming crisis. Professionals are trained to watch for signs of compassion fatigue, but lately it feels as if everyone is at risk. In today’s world, where every tragedy is instantly broadcast live in living colour directly into our living rooms (TV), laptops and our hands (smartphone), this is no longer unique to certain professions.

Numbness or indifference to real atrocity may, from the outside, seem callous. But as psychologist Charles Figley has argued, such fatigue stems from a desire to help. There is no compassion fatigue without compassion: the caregivers at risk see somebody suffering, and they want to reduce that suffering – but they can’t always succeed.

Often times this type of exhaustion is a result of either forgetting to check-in with yourself. Sometimes it just feels easier to put other people’s needs before your own. However, we can’t actually be there for others if we aren’t there for ourselves first. Many people feel shame towards themselves for not being able to support their friend the way they would like too. When you begin to feel overwhelmed and overburdened by helplessness, the best thing to do is to reach out for support because dealing with compassion fatigue is hard and something you don’t have to go through alone.

To see where you fall on the compassion satisfaction/fatigue continuum, take the Professional Quality of Life (PROQOL) questionnaire, which was developed by Dr. Beth Hundall Stamm, one of the world’s leading experts on compassion fatigue.

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