What Is Compassion Fatigue?

I first heard about compassion fatigue at a public health conference. It seems that many of us in "helping professions" can focus so much on helping others in need that we get wrapped up in their problems and neglect ourselves. Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project says:1

"Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper."

Hm, sound familiar?

Even Mother Theresa understood how caregivers can have compassion fatigue. She said it was MANDATORY that all of her nuns take a year break after working for 4 or 5 years - so they could heal from their role as caregivers.

What are the signs of compassion fatigue?

You may:

  • Neglect your hygiene
  • Isolate yourself
  • Bottle your emotions
  • Have stomach problems or frequent colds
  • Find little joy in things you used to enjoy
  • Be exhausted (physically and mentally)
  • Have a hard time concentrating
  • Complain about work constantly (or have people complaining about you)
  • Have flashbacks to traumatic events

My experience

When my 3 kids were little, their asthma was very difficult to control. Even their asthma doctor was surprised at how sick my kids would get, and how fast they would need emergency care. In fact, my kids were in the hospital 12 times for asthma (plus many visits to the ER and after hours clinics).

In addition to raising our kids, we were also caring for aging parents as part of the "sandwich generation."2 We were burning the candle at both ends.

I can tell you that we suffered all the compassion fatigue symptoms (especially flashbacks when our son was in ICU.)  It was overwhelming and heart-wrenching. I mean, I'm a mom - I'm supposed to "fix" everything and take away all the pain and suffering for my kids, right?

How to combat compassion fatigue

So if you are caring for someone (or many people) in your life, and realize you need a break, what do you do?

  • Talk it out with a friend
  • Know that the pain is normal
  • Eat healthy and get some exercise
  • Try to get enough sleep
  • Remember Mother Theresa's advice and take time off (maybe not a year....)
  • Find things to do outside of work

Take care of yourself - because no one else will. You know how the flight attendants tell you to put on YOUR oxygen mask on first... and then help your kids? Same concept - take care of yourself first so you can help family, friends, patients or whoever else needs your help.

What is compassion fatigue to you? How do you overcome it?

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