As the pace of change quickens and brings new challenges to us in this modern world, mental health professionals, who had already suffered a high incidence of burnout, are now contending with compassion fatigue, otherwise known as CF.
Social workers, counselors, therapists, nurses, and the like have become exhausted, but not just because of their routine job demands. They are exhausted because of the scale and severity of the trauma they are being inundated with.
The Difference Between Burnout and Compassion Fatigue
Burnout is a long-term effect of doing the stressful type of work that those in the helping professions perform. Burnout is serious and can be mentally and physically taxing, but it is a familiar and universal pitfall of taking on a career as a therapist or social worker. There are well-established practices to identify and deal with burnout that center around self-care, mindfulness, and seeking treatment for oneself when needed.
Compassion fatigue is the sense that you are completely overwhelmed by people who are facing devastating problems with no end in sight. Those who are suffering the most from CF have a large caseload of patients who are facing grave and often life-threatening issues that the helper can’t alleviate. Little by little, the helper takes on the suffering of their patient as they are treating them.
Some triggers that can contribute greatly to a case of compassion fatigue include:
- Providing services to those that are experiencing severe trauma (i.e. the loss of a loved one)
- Being verbally (or physically) accosted while providing care
- Caring for patients with suicidal ideations
- Providing care in a dangerous environment
- Being unable to alleviate patients’ symptoms of serious disorders such as depression or PTSD
- Managing a heavy workload, excessive demands, or long hours
- Providing services that deal with graphic evidence or reports of severe trauma
Learning More about Compassion Fatigue and Its Effects on the Healthcare Community
Compassion fatigue is the result of compounded instances of a phenomenon called “vicarious traumatization” or VT. Vicarious traumatization occurs when a helper experiences suffering brought on by exposure to the trauma of someone in their care.
Compassion fatigue results from the cumulative effects of treating a population that is dealing with severe problems.
The traumatic stress related to compassion fatigue is triggered by facing clientele with major stressors - stressors like the loss of a loved one or the will to live, which are all-too-common during recent world events.
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
Below are symptoms caused by compassion fatigue:
- Insomnia or sleep disturbances
- An increase in anxiety or the emotional intensity of performing tasks
- Impaired judgment or behavior
- A decrease in cognitive functioning
- Loss of morale
- Developing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- A loss of self-worth
- A loss of identity
- Doubts about spiritual beliefs
- A degeneration of psychological needs like safety, trust, and control
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Feelings of anger toward causal activities or perpetrators
Compassion fatigue can develop within a few months or after several years. For some, their feeling of caring erodes because they are overusing their skills and training. Some caregivers experience and display “emotional blunting,” which is a lack of empathy to situations that would typically elicit a more sympathetic reaction.
Studies have shown that mental health professionals are already more susceptible to negative life changes, such as addiction or divorce, than people who do other types of work, which are considered less stressful. Naturally, experiencing compassion fatigue would contribute to the development of one of these negative experiences.
Getting Professional Help for Compassion Fatigue
It is crucial that helping professionals seek out their own mental health interventions when faced with CF. It’s recommended to seek assistance immediately as soon as you start to display the above symptoms. CF is progressive and destructive, so delaying proactive recovery can have terrible consequences. Talking to another mental health professional is crucial, and this person can plan for and monitor your recovery.
Treatments for Compassion Fatigue
Once you are in contact with another mental health professional, they can help you plan a treatment regimen, monitor your progress throughout it, and make the necessary adjustments. Coping with CF requires a specialized treatment plan that integrates any of the below types of therapeutic processes.
- Taking a break from the profession: almost always there is a need to step back to free up time for self-care.
- One-on-One Counseling: someone in recovery from CF should have at least a primary therapist they are meeting with weekly, if not more often.
- Mindfulness activities: meditation, breathing exercises, walks, yoga, and similar activities are an excellent salve against the anxiety of CF.
- Group Therapy: it is a great relief to share the burden that you have been carrying with others. It is also healing to hear that others have experienced similar things and can relate to your problems.
- Medication: your primary therapist might recommend medication for anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders.
There are other interventions that may help, but most people who seek treatment for compassion fatigue will be participating in a combination of the above activities.
Mother Teresa and Compassion Fatigue
Mother Teresa, during her ministry, knew all about the effects of compassion fatigue. At one time, she wrote to her superiors that it was necessary for nuns in her organization to take a whole year off from their duties approximately every five years. Doing so, she said, was needed to allow them to recuperate from the impact of their assignments.
Getting Help Starts by Asking for Help
Many in the helping professions espouse the importance of seeking help from others, but then neglect to do so themselves. Do not wait for someone to intercede on your behalf. If you are experiencing the symptoms listed above, then don’t wait – seek help today. Call a friend or trusted fellow professional and get started toward recovery.
About the Author
Scott H. Silverman has been helping men and women recover from mental health problems for almost 40 years. He is the CEO of Confidential Recovery which is a treatment program in San Diego that specializes in helping executives, veterans, and first responders.