Sometimes helping others hurts. You’re a counselor because you want to help people. But helping them heal means you think about their problems often and try not to internalize them. Learning how to deal with compassion fatigue allows you to avoid letting your clients’ mental health issues overwhelm your emotional health.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Researchers call compassion fatigue the “cost of caring.” It is behaviors and emotions that arise from trying to help someone who is experiencing trauma or attempting to cope with past trauma.
Charles R. Figley, a leading researcher on compassion fatigue, wrote the following in his book, Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized: “Professionals who listen to clients’ stories of fear, pain, and suffering may feel similar fear, pain, and suffering because they care.”
Also called “secondary traumatic stress disorder,” compassion fatigue can develop into higher-level traumatic stress disorders if the person experiencing it isn’t able to cope with it or doesn’t seek treatment. In other words, counselors can experience emotional trauma by learning about and treating patients for emotional trauma.
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
Now that you have a better understanding of compassion fatigue, the question becomes whether you’re experiencing it. As you know, it’s much easier to identify an emotional health concern in others than it is in yourself. It may take some introspection for you to determine if you’re experiencing one yourself. Below are symptoms to consider.
Compassion fatigue symptoms include:
- Emotional: You feel overwhelmed and hopeless, or like you can’t help your patients’ suffering. You also might feel detachment or reduced empathy. It’s possible to experience something like burnout, where you feel like you just can’t handle doing your job anymore.
- Cognitive: You constantly think about your patients’ suffering to the point that you can’t concentrate. You may even blame yourself for not helping them feel better yet or magically healing them.
- Physical: You’re tense or agitated. You can’t sleep. You also may feel nausea, dizziness, or headaches.
- Behavioral: You just don’t feel like doing things outside of work. You start avoiding things you used to enjoy. You may even self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.
Compassion fatigue has symptoms that you would notice a patient experience. But you may write them off as stress or even caring a lot about your job (which you do) if you’re experiencing them. You also may know something isn’t quite right, but you haven’t allowed yourself to really consider what’s going on with you.
Managing Through Compassion Fatigue With Self-Care
Ok, so you think you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. Now what? The good news is that you can deal with it through a series of self-care activities.
Engage in the following activities to cope with compassion fatigue:
- Exercise: You know exercise is good for your physical and mental health. Even though you may not feel like exercising right now, the endorphin boost just a quick walk will give makes it worthwhile.
- Eat Well: What you put into your body matters. You may not feel like cooking every meal, but don’t fall into the trap of feeding your emotions with unhealthy food. Instead, consider meal prepping or ordering nutritious, easy-to-prepare meals.
- Sleep: The average person needs six to eight hours of sleep a night. Getting restful sleep can be difficult when you have a lot on your mind. Create a sleep routine that includes turning down the lights in the evening, taking a warm bath, putting on comfortable pajamas, and reading a book. Avoid screen time, caffeine, or alcohol for a couple of hours before bed. All of them affect your sleep quality.
- Time Off: Consider whether it may be worthwhile to take time away from work. If you don’t feel like you can be away from the office, focus on using your evening and weekend hours for activities you enjoy.
- Write: Journaling helps you process thoughts and emotions. Consider building in some time in your evening or morning routines to write down your feelings. Pick up your journal and write when your thoughts randomly begin spiraling.
- Meditate: Meditation helps you recognize your thoughts, then release them. Meditation will help you recognize what you feel and process it so your thoughts don’t consume you.
- Counseling: You know how vital counseling is to people’s mental health. After all, it’s why you choose this profession. Many counselors have counselors of their own. If you don’t already have a mental health professional to talk to, you should hire someone.
- Social Support: There is power in being with others. When you’re feeling down or overwhelmed, it’s time to rely on your family and friends to support you. Even if you don’t feel like going to a social event or family dinner, it will help you feel better to foster time with those who support you in healthy ways.
Just as you would advise anyone else, getting help from a professional is critical. A mental health professional is needed if your compassion fatigue symptoms continue or worsen or you think you may have a higher-level traumatic stress disorder.
You know you have to take care of yourself so that you can help others. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. But you’re a human being with emotions too. Sometimes those emotions may become overwhelming or problematic without you even realizing it.
Recognizing you are experiencing compassion fatigue and learning how to deal with it is a crucial part of caring for your mental health.
Figley, C., 1995. Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized. New York: Routledge.