Helping other people is a noble thing to do. Reaching out your hand to someone during a time of need, pain, or hardship is important for the growth and recovery of other people.
However, if you spread yourself too thin you may find yourself stressed and unable to help anyone.
What is compassion fatigue? How can you avoid it and what should you do if you develop it?
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Empathy means feeling someone else's experience. Sympathy means feeling sorry for someone else's experience. Compassion means helping someone because of their experiences. Compassion is what drives us to do acts of service that benefit others.
There is such a thing as helping too much. Just like physical limits, like how much emotional weight you can carry and how far you can run with it. Everyone has emotional limits.
Showing compassion and helping people through stressful times can be emotionally and physically tiring. You can only do so much before you need to rest.
Compassion fatigue defines the physical, emotional, and psychological toll of going past your mental threshold while helping others. It’s especially apparent in those helping others through traumatic experiences and events.
Compassion Fatigue Risk Factors
Some people are more likely to develop compassion fatigue. This includes:
The largest risk factor of compassion fatigue is your job. Healthcare workers like nurses help several patients at a time and are required to show each of them compassion and care. When your daily job is to help people through suffering, you are more likely to run out of your mental energy.
Some other risk factors are present for developing compassion fatigue. These include:
New to being a caregiver
Lack of training
Compassion fatigue can be developed outside a caregiving career. You may find yourself in a life situation that involves caring for a sick family member or difficult child. These situations can certainly lead to feeling overwhelmed.
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue will be felt first through several mental and cognitive issues. Those symptoms include:
A sense of hopelessness
Depression and anxiety
These symptoms develop over time. Keeping an eye out for them can help catch compassion fatigue early.
Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout
Burnout and compassion fatigue can often look similar, but they originate from two very different places. Burnout develops from being overworked. Compassion fatigue develops from secondary traumatic stress. Someone can experience both at the same time, but they are different phenomena.
How to Deal With Compassion Fatigue
It’s important to remember that if you experience compassion fatigue, you have not “failed” in any way. Caretaking, protecting, or serving others when they’re in a difficult situation is a very hard thing to do. Seeing others endure hardships can also be traumatic.
Knowing compassion fatigue is starting to appear can help you get ahead of it and take care of yourself. Luckily, it can be prevented and overcome.
If you work as a caregiver or work a job that requires compassion on some level, we highly recommend using these tools to prevent and deal with compassion fatigue.
Replenish Your Mental Capacity
When you spend your day depleting your mental energy on helping others, you need to spend time replenishing it. You may hear other people and mental health professionals talking about your mental and emotional capacity as a cup. When you expend your mental energy, you pour a little out of your cup. Eventually, your cup is empty, and you have no more to give. The only way to fill that cup is to take care of yourself.
Self-care is exactly what it sounds like. Take care of yourself. There are a lot of activities we can do just for ourselves. Some of them are fun, like taking a candle-lit bath. Others are less fun, but are arguably more important, like taking vitamins. Some examples of self-care include:
Self-monitoring your physical and mental health
Staying connected to what matters most
Monitoring phone use
Avoiding unhealthy habits
Doing small things that make you happy
There are so many ways to practice self-care. Prioritizing these practices will give you the mental space to replenish your mental stores and help you perform better as a caregiver.
Seek Support Groups
Self-care can sometimes feel like a chore, but seeking help from others can help you stay motivated. Peer support groups open the opportunity to share your experience with like-minded people. Compassion fatigue happens to a lot of people, and seeing others in the same situation can bring you a sense of relief.
Check your local area for support groups. If you work as a caregiver or in the medical industry, your employer likely offers support groups already. Tap into that existing lifeline and use it to increase your mental wellbeing.
Go to Therapy
Anyone can benefit by going to therapy. You don’t have to be in the middle of a difficult time to benefit from it. The regular stressors of life are sometimes more than we can handle in a given day. Therapy helps you get equipped and better adjusted to deal with those stressors.
If you’ve read some of our other posts then you’ve probably heard about mindfulness. It’s quite simply the practice of assessing emotions and physical sensations in the moment. Being more mindful makes you more resilient in stressful situations. Mindfulness training increases your emotional regulation when practiced daily.
Mindfulness training can be as simple as slowing down, paying attention to the present, and focusing on your breathing. There are also structured exercises you can practice:
Each of these practices requires you to physically and mentally slow down and deliberately focus on how your body feels. With closed eyes, you’ll slow down your breath and focus on the experience of just being.
When practiced often, mindfulness will make you less likely to experience compassion fatigue and produce a healthier relationship between you and your caretaking duties.
Building a purposeful life is an important part of living a fulfilling life. For some people, their purpose develops after a major event like a life-threatening experience, or watching a loved one fall terminally ill.
However, there are ways to develop purpose outside these major events or hardships. Whatever your purpose for your calling, cling to that purpose.
Having this perspective is not always easy, but attending support groups, practicing mindfulness, going to therapy, and practicing self-help will keep you on track to maintaining purpose at work.
Refill Your Cup at Inner Balance
Remember, if you’ve experienced compassion fatigue, you have by no means failed. You simply are worn down by seeing others in difficult situations.
Dealing with compassion fatigue is not easy alone. Inner Balance offers several therapy options including: