What is Compassion Fatigue and how can you overcome it?
Whether you're a professional carer or personal circumstances have led to you caring for a loved one at home, it's in our nature to do all we possibly can to ensure those who need our help are cared for, safe and loved. But for those in a position of care, Compassion Fatigue is a very real, sometimes debilitating, condition which can negatively impact a person's mental and physical health and wellbeing. It can make it difficult, or even impossible, for a carer to perform the duties required of them.
For those at risk of developing Compassion Fatigue, understanding the symptoms and knowing which treatment options are available is a great way to ensure you're able to tackle it head on, should the need ever arise. According to the American Institute of Stress, Compassion Fatigue is broadly defined as "the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events". It is most commonly diagnosed in those who regularly interact with victims of trauma or disaster at work, such as healthcare workers, emergency responders, social workers, therapists and journalists, and can even have a secondary impact upon their loved ones, too. It can arise as a result of working alongside just one particularly traumatic case, or as a result of working in a particularly challenging profession for many years. Compassion Fatigue can manifest itself in a variety of ways, but one of the most common and most striking effects is 'emotional numbness'. When people begin to develop the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue, they have often reached a point where they have been exposed to the trauma of others so dramatically that they have become physically and emotionally overloaded, and are unable to feel emotionally connected to their work, and to other parts of their life. This feeling may also be accompanied by other symptoms, which may include, but are not limited to: • Difficulty concentrating, trouble with decision-making • Mood swings, especially feelings of immense irritability and anger • Feelings of hopelessness • Symptoms of depression and anxiety • Social withdrawal and self-isolation • Physical symptoms, such as headaches, or an unsettled stomach • An increase in use of substances such as drugs and alcohol
The Impact Compassion Fatigue can have a variety of negative impacts on both those who experience it, and the people around them. Firstly, the symptoms can be difficult to manage, and are sometimes debilitating. They can lead to more serious mental health conditions if left untreated, such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. This, in turn, can then negatively impact a person's relationships. Mood swings and a sense of hopelessness may cause difficulty for colleagues trying to work together as a team with the person, particularly if their symptoms have not yet been identified and diagnosed. Given that Compassion Fatigue can also lead to social withdrawal, it can negatively impact a person's relationships outside of work, too. Finally, it can impact patients or others the person is responsible for at work or at home, since symptoms are likely to impact their ability to provide care. Treatment The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that those experiencing Compassion Fatigue should consider taking the following steps to help overcome it: Establish and implement a self-care routine: Ensuring you're maintaining a nutritional diet and exercising regularly, along with getting enough sleep at night are often a pivotal part of treatment for any mental health condition. This academic study highlighted the relationship between regular physical exercise and reduced anxiety, depression and negative mood, improved self-esteem and cognitive function, and the alleviation of some symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal. Self-care for those who are at risk of, or are experiencing, Compassion Fatigue, may also include taking some time off work and leaning on trusted social support. All of these things can be incorporated into a person's daily routine to help avoid Compassion Fatigue before symptoms ever have chance to take hold. Practice mindfulness: One study focused on Compassion Fatigue in therapists, and found that mindfulness may help to combat burnout and secondary traumatic stress, both of which are considered to be risk factors for Compassion Fatigue. Mindfulness can be practiced through regular meditation, such as sitting calmly for short sessions several times per day. Taking a moment to practice awareness of your body and taking deep breaths, as well as noticing the things that typically go unnoticed but things for which you are grateful throughout your day may also help to increase mindfulness. Try something new outside of your care environment: Making time for activities away from the setting in which Compassion Fatigue has developed can be hugely beneficial and give your mental health a real boost. It can be incredibly helpful for a person experiencing Compassion Fatigue to connect with others who are not associated with the areas of their life that have contributed to their condition. It can help to serve as a reminder that there's a world beyond the care environment, whether professional or at home, and that there's still plenty of joy to be had and beauty to behold. Rekindling old hobbies, developing new ones or joining social groups can be excellent ways to achieve this. Speak to a Therapist: Seeking the help of a trained counsellor can be an important step on the journey to recovery. A therapist can help to identify Compassion Fatigue, and help a person to gain perspective on their feelings and their role, address the trauma they have experienced through work, and develop healthy coping skills for both the symptoms of the condition and the difficult situations you may face at work or whilst caring for a loved one again in the future. For those with hectic schedules, for whom meeting face-to-face with a therapist may seem an impossible task, online therapy platforms are available. Whatever method you choose, it's often important to process the events that have led to your experience of Compassion Fatigue with somebody who is trained to help. Compassion Fatigue has received more attention in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has always been a risk for those in positions of care. Being able to recognise the symptoms and pursue the necessary treatment path for you can be incredibly helpful in preventing this condition amongst workers who provide crucial services for society and in some cases, their loved ones.
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