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Understanding Compassion Fatigue

Helping all day can be a lot; compassion fatigue and burnout for helpers who need help, too

Do you have a professional or non-professional job to do that involves helping others who have been through a lot? If so…

Do you frequently want to call in sick or pray that you will not be needed? Find yourself exhausted? Does work frequently, mentally, and emotionally intrude even when you are several hours out of work? Even though you partly know better, are you frustrated and despairing at demands that seem too greedy? Cynical and predicting poor outcomes and headaches? Instead of relaxing and expanding, are you constricting, isolating, avoiding? On edge? Over-watchful and activated?

Some of these things point only to ‘burnout’, though burnout is a serious problem too. However, if severe enough, all the above aspects together might suggest compassion fatigue.

What is Compassion fatigue?

To understand compassion fatigue, we must first know at least a bit about trauma and PTSD. To summarize greatly, these are conditions that arise when we have been exposed directly to harmful or shocking events or have experienced them immediately near us. At those times, the mind / body kicks into survival mode and then, sometimes, stays there. Time and intervention can help provide a ‘reset, with new knowledge’ in such cases.

I went through a more official training with J. Eric Gentry, Ph.D. on compassion fatigue. I am very grateful and can tell it will be of great assistance to clients and me. I owe a great deal now to that training. That said, without really realizing it, I had dealt with secondary traumatic stress. There were two related areas: workplace difficulties and the family of those with severe mental illness. I have also worked on more severe, primary traumas, mainly in the area of workplace injuries.

In further regard to understanding compassion fatigue, we must understand the concept of burnout. Please see my post on burnout here. It is different than, but part of, compassion fatigue.

How is compassion fatigue different than burnout?

Helpers hear detailed accounts of the traumatic and continuously distressing events others have endured. Nearly all human minds can experience and use empathy. Empathy involves mentally, emotionally, sometimes even sensation-wise, putting oneself in the shoes of others.

Even without knowing it, we can create visualizations and secondary body-sense impressions from the words, visuals, and non-verbals of others. Thus, it is somewhat frequent for helpers, caregivers, and other service-oriented people to develop secondary traumatic stress. This is particularly true over time.

Grit for compassion fatigue

Just gotta hang in as long as I can take it….

Helpers, particularly healers, strongly depend upon and actively utilize their empathic and visualization capacities. This can make them vulnerable. They are even more vulnerable in areas where they already have unresolved or partly resolved traumas—or any disturbances in early / significant relationships.

So, compassion fatigue is a condition that affects helpers and service people (even non-professional ones, such as family caregivers). To summarize greatly, compassion fatigue is the product of an interaction of burnout, secondary trauma, and prior negative learning history. Compassion fatigue does not have an official psychiatric diagnosis. However, it can be encapsulated by current diagnostic systems.

How does therapy help compassion fatigue?

To withstand—and even grow from—compassion fatigue or burnout, one must have values that ground everything else (existential perspective, part of my treatment methods). There must be a gentle confrontation about how unaware we are of our constriction, avoidance, and defensiveness. We must also calm the harsh, judgmental conscience (a match with a psychoanalytic perspective). And, we must find new skills to keep the body/ mind calm and see our thinking errors, real-time (CBT aspects).

As stated, the overall goal is to make compassion fatigue a self-bettering growth experience. Then, it can resolve without a major loss of the ‘self’ or loss of a helping activity or career.

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