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Compassion Fatigue

Introduction

We’ve all heard of the terms “stress” and “burnout” and are likely familiar with what they refer to. What about “compassion fatigue”, and how similar is it to the mentioned conditions? This post offers an overview on compassion fatigue, its symptoms and subsequent treatments.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

  • Simply put, this is stress or exhaustion resulting from exposure to a traumatized individual. Such exhaustions can be either physical or mental, or simply both.

  • Takes time to develop and usually accumulates over a long period of time

  • Mostly experienced by professionals serving in the healthcare, emergency and community service industries, although this can also apply to the general public.

  • This may impact the quality of their service and relationships with colleagues. More severely, it may prompt more serious mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, OCDs or substance use disorders.

  • This is different from burnouts, which usually stem from an overwhelming amount of work or responsibilities. Compassion fatigue is all about the weariness in extending compassion.

Causes

  • Two main factors: secondary trauma and burnout

    • Secondary trauma: trauma that one experiences when exposed to the traumatic experiences of other individuals, rather than being directly exposed to the event itself.

    • Burnout is regularly defined as the state of “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources”.

  • Psychologically speaking, when combined, secondary trauma and burnout create compassion fatigue.

  • However, if the individual derives “compassion satisfaction” or develops pleasure and resilience from encountering these factors, compassion fatigue ceases to exist.

  • It can be seen as a negative consequence of working with traumatized individuals, and vice versa for compassion satisfaction.

Is Compassion Fatigue Exclusive to Professionals?

  • Patients diagnosed with compassion fatigue are typically professionals working as caregivers.

  • When extending compassion to their service targets, professionals become exposed to the trauma of others. In excess, their ability to cope with secondary trauma may become “sapped”, leading to fatigue - not caring about themselves or those around themselves.

  • However, due to the rapid circulation of news and recent health issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the general public have also become prone to compassion fatigue. This includes viewing catastrophic events in various media; our empathy may wear off when we are continually exposed to such news.

Symptoms

  • Physical and mental exhaustion

  • Irritability or numbness

  • Disrupted sleep or appetite, headaches

  • Helplessness and hopelessness

  • A decreased sense of purpose and accomplishment

  • Emotional detachment in activities

  • Self-contempt (on not having done enough to help the traumatized)

  • Difficulties with personal relationships

  • May self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, gambling or food

Treatment

Self-care:

  • Exercise regularly and eat healthily; take time off if possible

  • Practice mindfulness, meditation or yoga

  • Spend time with loved ones and practice gratitude

  • Rediscover hobbies and interests

  • Avoid stressful and traumatic information if necessary

Others:

  • Seek professional help if needed or if symptoms worsen

  • “Resilience training”: institutions could educate workers on the matter, its risk factors and relaxation techniques to cope with such symptoms.

Conclusion

  • An exposure to secondary trauma in excess may result in a loss of compassion within caregivers; this comes in both physical and mental exhaustions

  • Compassion fatigue should NOT be overlooked → this can affect social and workplace relationships, and even lead to severe mental disorders or conditions

  • Can be experienced by the general public


References


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