Compassion Fatigue: Your Job Is to Help Others, but Who Is Helping You?

First responders, clinicians, educators, counselors and others in the helping professions can be vulnerable to compassion fatigue. Here’s how you can take care of yourself during these troubling times.

Compassion Fatigue: Your Job Is to Help Others, but Who Is Helping You?

Cognitively, someone suffering from CF finds it difficult to imagine a future; feeling stuck in the past. Learning is inhibited with poor concentration. Compulsive behaviors develop as a way to feel in control. These behaviors include over-eating, gambling, overspending, and using substances to sleep or help manage feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Isolation from friends and family, effects on job performance through increased absenteeism, and careless errors, can damage therapeutic relationships that are built on trust and respect.

Help Me Heal Myself: As easy as A.B.C.

One way to treat CF is by using mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness trains one to focus on our thoughts without judgement. It can protect you from experiencing depression and improve immune function, reduce stress, reduce mind wandering and decrease emotional reactivity. Meditation can increase focus, as well as boost working memory and mental flexibility. It allows for new ways to respond, be more accepting and promotes self-regulation. It also helps improve relationships with others.

As found on the website www.giftfromwithin.org, Dr. Angela Panos shared her approach to preventing CF. Remember your ABCs: Awareness, Balance/Boundaries and Connections.

Awareness allows you to know the signs, the types of cases or individuals that trigger compassion fatigue. Be aware of the changes in CF symptoms. Pay special attention to sleep problems, especially if you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. CF is real. if you have it, you are not weak or crazy.

Balance and boundaries help you remember that you are entitled to a personal life. Maintain boundaries to protect your time. Taking care of oneself requires taking breaks and vacations. Keep yourself strong with exercise, yoga and nutrition. Don’t forget to include time for fun activities. Art and music are particularly helpful in restoring the soul.

Connections could have different meanings. It can come though connecting to a supportive, caring coworker, friend or member of your family. Some prefer the comfort of a furry friend. Others may connect with their faith-based community.

It is unrealistic to believe that we can control everything. There are still great mysteries left unsolved, which actually may help manage our expectations. Not knowing when our last day on earth will be is a good  example. The first implication of this principle is that if we assume that we have all the time in the world to live, we might never accomplish anything. However, the second implication is, if we knew the day of our demise, we may not live to our potential or pursue our goals. Putting faith in a higher power takes a bit of the pressure off of us.

Living by the ABCs allows for resilience. It allows you to have a sense of purpose. It allows you to develop spiritual/cultural beliefs and practice healthy rituals. You find the time to celebrate small victories and have predictable routines. Most importantly, it provides you with the ability to have strong, positive relationships with others helping face traumatic events in your professional and personal lives.

Belonging to a family and community whose members are committed to each other, share time together and resolve conflicts in healthy/adaptive ways can act as a buffer from life’s adversities; helping manage the very stressors that can make you vulnerable to CF altogether.

A final point to remember is based on something we learned in a presentation we attended years ago. This concept reminds us to manage our expectations, which isn’t always easy. It is known as Wabi-sabi and was developed through Japanese aesthetics.

It acknowledges that nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect. You can equate it to thinking, “this too shall pass.” It is important to remember that things are not all good or all bad. More likely, an adverse event offers hidden opportunities to develop a skill and our hidden potential. It can also bring people into your life that you would not have met otherwise. Potential can be found in the most unlikely places, in ways we may not understand.

Make the World Your Oyster

Everyone knows the value of a pearl and knows that pearls come from oysters. However, many are not aware that to make a pearl, an oyster must work hard to protect itself from the long and painful process of being irritated by sand or other irritants that have slipped in between its two shells. The protection comes in coating the irritant with a substance that in time, becomes what we now call (and hold in high value) mother of pearl.

In dealing with those suffering from trauma, grief or other issues, we must help them find their protective coating to create their own pearls. We must also do this for ourselves. The oyster teaches us that pain and suffering has the power to be transformative.

If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional information.

Dr. Shoshanah Findling is the Site Director of the Graduate School of Education, Touro College: Brooklyn and Staten Island Campus. She and Dr. Jay Findling are Community Crisis Chaplains with the New York State Chaplains Task Force.

The views expressed by guest contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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