Compassion fatigue is when a caregiver experiences distress and exhaustion from repeatedly witnessing others’ pain. Sharise Nance—a LCSW specializing in compassion fatigue—called it the “common cold of the helping profession, because everyone is prone to this condition.”
A 2006 study of hospice nurses across 22 facilities found that 78% were at moderate to high risk of compassion fatigue. According to the study authors, “Trauma, anxiety, life demands, and excessive empathy (leading to blurred professional boundaries) were key determinants of compassion fatigue.”
Now months into a global pandemic, compassion fatigue might be on high, particularly for mental health professionals and physicians on the frontlines. Therapists and other mental health professionals have to carry people’s fears on top of their own. Physicians treating patients with COVID-19 are witnessing a lot of suffering—among their patients, and among families who can’t visit their sick loved one—amid their own potential anxiety about contracting the virus.
Even without a pandemic, an estimated 35-54% of nurses and doctors experience significant burnout, a symptom of compassion fatigue. That number increases to 60% for medical students and residents.
Managing symptoms of compassion fatigue is based around setting boundaries with your time. Nance stresses taking care of your basic needs as part of your schedule.
A lot of people in my life are in caregiving positions, and almost all tend to dismiss their own needs to help others. This comes from a good place, but it can quickly lead to burnout. There’s a reason there’s so many clichés like “put on your oxygen mask first” or “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” You can only take care of others’ needs if you’re able to meet your own.
As Nance points out, “Food is fuel, and you will need the energy to do this work. Sleep allows the brain and body to reset. Movement—be it through walking, running or stretching—moves the unsettling emotions, stress and traumas through the body.”
Nance also suggests trying to keep a consistent schedule, especially for people who are now doing telehealth. When working from home, the boundary between work and personal life may become blurred—especially for people who already have a hard time drawing that line. Keeping the same schedule allows a set stopping point, an intrinsic boundary.
Journaling can also be helpful, particularly if you are a mental health professional. It gives an outlet for the worries that may be swirling around in your head—both your clients’ and your own. It can also help you set a schedule and understand your limits.
You can also use journaling to remember the reasons you went into the profession. You might make a list. You might also remind yourself—in whichever way works best for you—that your work is important and necessary. Especially now, when so many people need support.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, it is okay to ask for help. According to Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, “Caregivers are not good at asking for help.”
TruHealing Centers is open throughout the COVID-19 crisis, with hospital-grade sanitization of our facilities and telehealth options. At our recovery centers across the country, we will help you work through traumas and build coping skills to thrive in long-term recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.