Tools to Combat Compassion Fatigue
By Dr. Mila Rojas
Compassion fatigue refers to a stress response seen in healthcare workers. It involves physical and emotional exhaustion that leads to the loss of compassion. This takes place due to constant exposure to the suffering of others in a high-stress environment, which places strong emotional demands on healthcare practitioners. The overall impact involves the entire medical team, the patients, and healthcare organizations (1). How to identify compassion fatigue and what can you do to prevent it and overcome it?
Signs and Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
There are different signs and symptoms that you can experience or identify in others who are suffering from compassion fatigue. Some of the most common ones are:
- Feeling hopeless
- Feeling irritable and impatient when tending to patients
- Guilt, feeling with little to no power
- Constant exhaustion
- Emotional numbness
- Sleep disturbances
- Decreased cognitive ability
Identifying these symptoms is necessary to be able to take action and manage compassion fatigue.
Preventing Compassion Fatigue
There are different steps you can take to prevent compassion fatigue. One of the first ones is getting information about how compassion fatigue can present itself. This will allow you to quickly identify it and start the process of overcoming it. Other preventive measures include:
This word might have been overused in the past few years but it is extremely important in the present context. Self-care begins with self-knowledge. You need to understand what your limits are and identify when you are getting overly tired and emotionally exhausted. By doing this, you will be able to decide to take a break and recharge before coming back to work.
Some habits you can include to care for yourself are setting time for a daily workout (this can range from going to the gym to taking a walk or dancing in your living room for 10 minutes), eating nutritious meals (remember, it’s not about going on a strict diet, it’s about eating mostly healthy meals), following your emotional needs (taking an additional day off when you are too tired or emotionally affected), and being consistent with your sleep schedule (2).
You can practice mindfulness meditation or/and incorporate mindfulness practices into your daily life by focusing on the present moment and on each task you are doing. This will help you relieve some of the anxiety that is associated with compassion fatigue. Plus, by focusing on the present moment, you will be able to be more present yourself.
Set a Calendar
Sometimes we’re not able to identify when it’s time for a break, which is why it’s important to set a time for checking in with yourself and assessing how you are feeling and if everything is as it should be. This only takes a couple of minutes and it can help you adjust your day, week, or month to include extra self-care in your routine. You can even set a calendar for this if needed and schedule some time for a check-in. It might sound like too much organization but it can help you prevent later exhaustion.
If you have great teammates, you might want to consider opening up to them. Even before you develop compassion fatigue, talking about your feelings and concerns with people who absolutely get it can be incredibly helpful. You will realize you are not alone and these conversations will help everyone in preventing compassion fatigue.
Managing and Overcoming Compassion Fatigue
The tools to combat compassion fatigue include all the strategies used to prevent it. However, once you are having these feelings, some extra tips can be very helpful.
Set Your Boundaries
This tool is all about balance. You can care and be invested in a patient’s well-being and recovery while setting your limits and remembering that you are a human being too. The goal is to avoid taking in the pain of the patient while maintaining that connection that allows you to provide humane treatment.
It might sound counter-intuitive because as medical professionals, we are taught to fight illness and suffering with all we have. However, there needs to be a level of acceptance for the things you can’t control and the cases in which little more can be done. This struggle involves seeing the good while accepting the bad, something that can be really difficult but that can also help immensely when dealing with compassion fatigue.
Spend Time with Friends and/or Family
Having friends outside of work and spending time with them can be a great strategy to help you overcome compassion fatigue. While your co-workers will be able to understand and maybe even share the same experience, outside friends can provide a different perspective. Plus, it can help you remember that there’s life outside of work and that seeking balance is the key to everything.
Therapy and Support Groups
Seeing a professional can be a great aid in understanding what is happening and developing the tools that will allow you to cope with compassion fatigue. By getting a therapist’s perspective and guidance, you will benefit from specialized care and will be able to express your concerns and create helpful strategies. You can also join a caretaker support group where you will get ideas on how to cope from people who are experiencing or have experienced what you are feeling now.
Set Time for Hobbies
Once again, work can’t be everything and it is important that you do activities that you enjoy and that are for you. This doesn’t include studying medical subjects or working out for the sole goal of being in shape, for example. It’s about doing that thing you used to enjoy when you were younger or that you’ve always wanted to do (e.g. enroll in theater class for adults, painting classes, mountain climbing). This will allow you to set times for pure enjoyment, which is a great aid when dealing with compassion fatigue.
These are only a few of the tools and strategies you can use to prevent and overcome compassion fatigue. The most important thing is that you know yourself and that you implement changes in your life that allow you to care for yourself, which will allow you to care for others.