Compassion fatigue is the physical, emotional, and psychological toll that comes with helping others. It can easily look like burnout due to the stress that manifests. The phenomenon became more visible during and after the pandemic for people who directly dealt with others’ trauma. Nurses, healthcare workers, doctors, parents, and other caretaker roles experienced great exhaustion, stress, and no boundaries.
Compassion fatigue is a sense of dissatisfaction brought on by a stressful work environment, low resources, or being overworked. It’s also known as:
- Secondary stress reaction
- Second-hand shock
- Secondary traumatic stress
- Vicarious trauma
Causes of compassion fatigue
People who work in service-oriented roles or as caregivers are more at risk for compassion fatigue. Therapists are especially at risk because they are subjected to the emotional and psychological trauma of multiple patients. Vicarious trauma can also occur when workers are subjected to threats when working. Healthcare workers can also get a second-hand shock from patients threatening suicide.
Providing care to patients in dangerous areas, having an unsafe work environment, and working with people experiencing grief, or depression can lead to compassion fatigue.
Because of how it mimics burnout, compassion fatigue can affect the ability to do your job. It can also lead to severe depression and jeopardise your physical health. Signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue can let you know when it’s time to take a break or seek medical assistance.
1. Mood swings
Long-term stress leads to mood destabilisation. Having drastic shifts in mood within short periods, being quick to anger, and being plagued by negative thoughts are common symptoms. Increasing irritability even after work is also a sign.
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Another sign of compassion fatigue is withdrawing from social occasions. This includes neglecting friendships and other relationships by ignoring meetups, refusing to communicate, and no longer caring about social life. Feeling emotionally unconnected from anything can be a sign of vicarious trauma. However, it also extends to work. You can feel a dissonance towards your job.
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If you have vicarious trauma, you’re at higher risk of alcohol addiction. This is especially common among healthcare workers who have access to prescription medication. When you’re experiencing compassion fatigue, it’s possible to start relying on self-medication. Overuse can then lead to addiction to medications, alcohol, or narcotics.
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4. Anxiety and depression
Being overexposed to people experiencing great trauma without getting any psychological support and enough breaks can lead to anxiety and depression. Anxiety is the body’s response to high-stress situations. Depression also comes in when it looks as though the situation won’t change. With the lack of mood stability, and cynicism, it’s possible that you may eventually display symptoms of depression.
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5. Lack of concentration
Like burnout, compassion fatigue leads to memory loss, inability to concentrate, and lack of productivity. The mental exhaustion can also cause insomnia which creates a cycle of fatigue. It also makes it difficult to focus on work and personal relationships. 4 Common Insomnia Causes & How To Prevent Them
6. Physical symptoms
Compassion fatigue also leads to headaches, dizziness, fatigue, changes in appetite, digestive issues, and chronic pain.
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Since this happens when caregivers feel overwhelmed by work, medical attention may be necessary. If you start experiencing these symptoms you may be referred to a psychiatrist who specialises in trauma. The common treatments prescribed include:
This includes home remedies to manage fatigue and emotional exhaustion. Self-care includes ensuring to eat well, exercise, sleep enough, meditate, get a massage, and take a break from work-related activities. Simple Ways Of Practicing Self-Care On A Daily Basis
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This can involve talk therapy and medications to regulate mood, anxiety, and depression symptoms. This can be a long-running treatment that happens even when you go back to work.
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During and after the pandemic, more caregivers found themselves experiencing the same troubles their patients were experiencing. Safety, uncertainty, disruptions, and lack of financial security added stress to healthcare workers who were also getting very high work rates. The new reality means that if you work in care, you may find yourself struggling similarly to your patients. The increased trauma of loss of life, jobs, and general health heightened the stress faced on both ends.
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Working in healthcare was already extremely demanding but with all the modern difficulties facing everyone, it’s understandable that it gets more overwhelming. The pandemic also strained medical resources and highlighted gaps in healthcare in many countries. It’s important for caregivers to exercise self-compassion by taking time off regularly with other colleagues, therapists, or other support structures within the community.
The community also helps prevent compassion fatigue. Having groups where you can check on each other ensures that coworkers don’t end up becoming too overwhelmed. Studies show that group peer support can help improve mental health by removing isolation, intervening upon signs of fatigue, and helping others seek treatment where needed.
Another option to try is compassion satisfaction. If you focus on the wins, big or small, of how your caregiving is helping patients. Take your patients’ recoveries as part of your achievements. This helps prevent getting bogged down in all the trauma that surrounds healthcare.
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