Professionals in the trauma and mental healthcare field, first responders, medical professionals, and even those just sympathetic by nature are all compassionate individuals with the goal of helping others through difficult and trying times. However, the ability to constantly lift others through difficult situations takes a toll and can be very exhausting. Compassion fatigue can set in and make it difficult for a person to continue putting the same level of care and energy into their work. The exhaustion can even make taking care of oneself a very difficult task. Addressing these issues starts with defining compassion fatigue, as well as how a person can implement their own compassion fatigue tests, to identify and begin compassion fatigue treatment. Not only is addressing these issues important for a person to continue serving others with care, but it is also important for the mental and physical health of those who dedicate their lives to helping others.
How To Define Compassion Fatigue
A single compassion fatigue definition can provide guidance on identifying compassion fatigue in others, but each person may still experience compassion fatigue in several different ways. Whether a person is helping someone by treating an injury, providing physical therapy, or offering mental health services, they can be constantly taxed with expressing the compassion that another may need. First responders on the scene may be asked to help each person with the same energy, and it can be difficult to continue to put the same amount of compassion into each unique situation after a long period of time. Constantly caring about the needs of others and being compassionate in every situation is a mentally exhausting experience, and the mental and physical exhaustion that occurs as a result is known as compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is the tax that all of this emotional investment takes on the professionals themselves. It is the mental, emotional, and even physical fatigue that comes with treating difficult situations with compassion over a long period of time. Compassion fatigue is essentially the “cost of caring” for others. Taking on the stresses and difficulties of others and putting a little bit of oneself into all of these situations can lead to emotional exhaustion or a detached or closed-off mindset. Compassion fatigue can leave a person feeling as if they don’t have anything more to give, or that the mental exhaustion indicates they don’t want to continue to give.
Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout
Compassion fatigue and burnout can look similar on the surface, despite a few key differences. Burnout can be exhaustion that occurs in any kind of profession, either due to long hours, hard work, or a person not being recognized for the effort and energy they are putting into their job. Compassion fatigue is a bit more nuanced, as it involves the exhaustion that comes with sharing traumatic experiences with others. While both involve mental and physical exhaustion, compassion fatigue is intricately involved with the needs of other people and can lead to a more jaded outlook on life or the difficulties of others after repeated exposure to the accounts of traumatic events.
Compassion Fatigue Symptoms
Compassion fatigue can manifest differently depending on the person, as well as the occupation. Compassion fatigue in nursing, for example, may look a bit different than compassion fatigue in first responders. However, there are several similarities that each person can look for in themselves, or in loved ones who may be in professions that demand a lot of compassion.
Compassion fatigue self-tests can include asking oneself if they are more distracted than usual, or more irritable when placed in situations where a person is demanding a degree of compassion. Lack of focus, a jaded outlook, or a more closed off emotional state can all be signs of compassion fatigue, as is feeling distant to those around them, especially if those people are coming to them for help. Reduced sense of empathy, a limited tolerance for stress or irritation, or feelings of being overwhelmed or powerless to make a difference can all be major indicators of compassion fatigue.
Depersonalization and a reduced sense of accomplishment from one’s work can be common, and a person may begin questioning their usefulness in their professional field. Doubt in one’s professional abilities may manifest, and overall feelings of isolation and low morale may influence the way a person sees both themselves, as well as their work. Those who suffer from compassion fatigue and go untreated may even find themselves leaving their professional field in an attempt to give themselves the mental break they may have needed for a long time.
How To Help a Person Suffering From Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue treatment can be difficult, as a person may be too exhausted to engage in their self-care, or may lack motivation during the small amount of time they do have to themselves. In some cases, a person may be fatigued but still feels like they are required and expected to go back to work. This can create a dissonance where the person needs a break but won’t allow themselves the time off to recover. However, self-care and a physical and emotional break can be crucial for addressing compassion fatigue.
Using vacation days, or even helping a person create a rigid schedule where there is a certain time of day in which they are no longer allowed to work can create breaks where they can explore their interests or hobbies without worrying about the compassion fatigue involved on a professional front. Having a time of night where a person should stop working or shut off their phones when possible can help them distance themselves and create a safe barrier between their personal care and professional expectation. Creating nightly hobbies and practices can help a person separate themselves from their work and focus on themselves, rather than their exhaustion. For some, even taking some time off with no plans except to sleep can be the break that a person needs. Allowing a person some distance can help them focus on themselves, which can be very mentally rejuvenating for them.