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Compassion Fatigue and What To Do About It

Compassion fatigue, in simplest terms, is the emotional and physical exhaustion that can be brought about by regular encounters with sadness and suffering in the world. For many years, the condition has been most associated with people who witness tragedy as part of their normal working life, such as nurses and doctors, police and firefighters, military members, etc. However, in particularly difficult times—as many of us have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic—anyone can be susceptible to compassion fatigue . . . aka, the “cost of caring.”

If at any point you’ve recently felt unusually desensitized, or not empathetic, to the struggles and feelings of other people, including your own family and friends, you may be dealing with a form of compassion fatigue yourself. It’s important to know that you’re not alone if you often feel “disconnected” from those around you, or unmotivated to do more to help other people or yourself. While it can seem irrational to feel less compassion during hard times, it’s quite a common psychological cause and effect, often brought on in people who actually care the most about the well being of their neighbors, and are simply burnt out from disappointment and heartache.

Compassion fatigue can show up as any of the following:

  • Self-medicating and numbing feelings (e.g. alcohol, food, Netflix, social media)
  • Feeling shameful about taking care of yourself (or not), your work, how you show up
  • Having “us vs. them” mentality (e.g. those not wearing masks vs. those who do)
  • Developing a scarcity mindset vs. abundance mindset (e.g. there isn’t enough to go around)
  • Having unexpected and misdirected outbursts and emotions (e.g. spilling a drink, traffic, emails)
  • Isolating from family, friends, yourself (by numbing feelings)
  • Experiencing flashbacks or nightmares

Compassion fatigue can be harmful to yourself and others:

  • Leads to higher rates of depression and anxiety, increased stress
  • Impacts your ability to empathize and connect with loved ones, which could lead to household stress, divorce, isolation, etc.

The good news is, there’s hope! There are things you can do to fight the fatigue:

  1. Get some sleep, and develop a sustainable self-care plan. Block time (and keep it blocked) so you can do the things that bring you joy. And, find someone to help hold you accountable. Remember, self-care isn’t all bubble-baths and candles, it’s about doing things that bring you joy and limiting the things that cause stress.
  2. Set boundaries: On conversation topics, time, phone usage, etc. Have a friend who always calls about COVID-19, but it’s a topic that triggers stress for you? Tell them.
  3. Be deliberate with empathy: Save empathy for yourself and family. Monitor your media intake and be realistic about how many causes you can serve at one time.
  4. Ask for help: What can you stop? What can wait? What is urgent? What are barriers to you being able to develop a self-care plan and set boundaries?
  5. Reconnect with something greater: spirituality, religion – whatever that means to you.
  6. Practice gratitude: Say thank you, observe the world around you and appreciate the good in it.
  7. Be mindful: Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.
  8. Talk with a professional: Share your concerns with a mental health and/or wellness professional, such as those on staff here at Southeastern Med.
  9. Chat with your doctor: Are you experiencing nightmares or flashbacks, or other symptoms impacting your quality of life? Consult a physician as soon as you can.

You’ve heard it many times — these are unprecedented times. There is absolutely no shame in asking for some help and support!