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Compassion Fatigue: What It Is and How to Deal with It

Have you ever felt lethargic and depressed after listening to a friend’s account of a grueling divorce? Or perhaps you’ve been irritable after volunteering at the local halfway house. Maybe you’re taking care of a sick loved one and all of a sudden, you just want out of your “prison.” You don’t understand why you’re suddenly not feeling well; your heart is very much into the service you’re doing.

It’s possible that what you experienced is “compassion fatigue.”

What is Compassion Fatigue?           

Compassion Fatigue refers to a condition characterized by physical and emotional stress after performing a helping or care-giving function. As the term implies, a person suffering from Compassion Fatigue is initially the one providing support to someone in need, but coping resources have maxed out. Compassion Fatigue is common among counselors, doctors and nurses, rescue workers and those working with trauma survivors. But it can also be experienced by lay persons, especially those exposed to people with special needs. If you’re a mother caring for a child with Autism, for example, you may need to watch out for Compassion Fatigue.

Why do people experience Compassion Fatigue?       

It’s difficult to think of compassion as something that requires energy, or something that can exhaust a person. But when you think about it, suffering is an abnormal situation.

We’re all encouraged to be healthy; the crisis comes when we get ill. A stable life with no shocks or loss should be the norm in a community; being attacked by a burglar or devastated by a tornado is what disrupts the customary scheme of things. Everyone is encouraged to be happy and content; sadness and depression are what takes its toll on mental health.

When you look at it from this perspective, it’s easy to see why compassion is tiring. Compassion is a positive feeling, true, and in many cultures compassion is highly lauded. But it’s also a stress reaction, because it’s a response to something unusual, unwanted and potentially hazardous. Imagine having to listen to nothing but depressing stories all day. Even if you’re sincere, it’s a situation you won’t be able to stand for long.

Dealing with Compassion Fatigue

How can a person cope with Compassion Fatigue? Consider the following tips:

Know the signs. The key to managing Compassion Fatigue is alertness to symptoms. This is especially critical as Compassion Fatigue usually occurs during periods of  crisis, times when people tend to be more oriented towards taking care of other people than taking care of themselves. Signs to look out for include physical symptoms like migraine, susceptibility to illness, and stomach acidity. But you must also be mindful of emotional symptoms such as irritability, emotional contagion or the tendency to lose one’s self in what another is feeling (which is different from empathy or being in the shoes of another), numbness, resentment, anger and even sadness.

Accept that there’s only so much you can do. At the end of the day, you’re just a helper, and you’re a helper with limitations. While we would like to solve all of other people’s problems, or relieve them of their burdens, we can only influence the things that are within our control. Take heart that you’ve done everything you can. Have faith that others can find meaning in their suffering. And remember: give others an opportunity to help as well --- you can’t hoard all the care-giving roles!

Appreciate beautiful things in your life. Working crisis situations can make you change your view of the world. For instance, after spending the day caring for abuse survivors, you might think that the world is filled with nothing but cruelty. Before you let the situations you attend to corrode the positivity in your life, get in touch with what’s going right in your own life. (Don’t forget: you have your own life to live too!) Take time to smell the roses --- or go shopping! --- to balance your perspective.

Lastly, actively practice self-care. In the midst of a crisis, make sure you’re eating right, getting enough sleep and drinking plenty of fluids. Your health should be your first priority; after all, you can’t help others if you’re not well. The last thing you need is to burn-out, and be a burden to those you’re caring for instead of a helper in their time of need.

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