Drowning in empathy: compassion fatigue
From a TEDx talk
Caregivers and emergency responders are empathetic individuals who risk suffering from Compassion Fatigue, a form of PTSD. Amy Cunningham explains more in a TEDx talk and how it is treatable. Here is an abridged version:
Compassion fatigue is experienced by those in a helping profession, for example, doctors, nurses, counsellors, therapists, police officers and even unpaid volunteers.
If you, in the middle of the night, are answering the phone to help a friend through a crisis. If you are raising children and caring for parents. If you are in an unpaid role to a helping profession [or ministry], compassion fatigue could be affecting you as well.
What puts you at a greater risk is empathy.
Those in a helping profession generally have a a very strong empathetic response system. Empathy is that ability to pick yourself up and put yourself in someone else's shoes and really get where they're coming from. The problem with empathy is you don't get to decide when to jump out, and those traumas that they experience begin to change you.
I remember when I was the supervisor of a therapeutic group, I was sitting down with one of my clients and she began to tell me the horrific and painful stories of her past. As she laid out in detail what she had experienced, my cell phone began to vibrate. I wanted to show her that I was listening and I cared about every word she said so I picked it up, silenced it, I put it back down and I continued to listen. From that day forward for years, every single time I picked up my cell phone and swiped to silence it, I was transported back to her trauma. My brain had created a PTSD related symptom.
This would be pretty normal if it happened that day after work, or maybe even a week or two weeks later, but it is of concern when it's sticking around for longer.
For many years, compassion fatigue was confused with burnout. Professor Charles Figley began to research this and found burnout has to do with being worn out, tired and not liking your job anymore. Compassion fatigue has to do with being afraid.
Compassion fatigue begins to change your hardwiring. For example, child protective service workers can start to become overly vigilant, believing that everyone is out to hurt them and their family. Memories of those working with victims of abuse and those dying do not just go away. They begin to change you, but we like to make excuses because we think we're superhuman, so we say things like, "I'm fine.", "I'm a professional, I can deal with the stress.".
The problem with that is when stress and trauma start to affect you, your brain and your body will start to show signs and symptoms because your body and your brain are shouting at you, "I am NOT OK!".
You might start to have sleep problems - either sleeping all the time or not able to sleep at all.
You might become a workaholic because when we start to feel like we are losing control of the world around us, we roll up our sleeves and work a little harder.
You may feel unappreciated and what you have is not enough to get the job done. When you started in this helping work, you knew you were going to be underappreciated but you said it's okay I want to do this anyway. Then somewhere along the way that is no longer okay. Your circumstances didn't change - you have - maybe because of life, of maturity or compassion fatigue.
Then there is self-entitlement. Because of the positive things you do, you require little invisible badges to really be professionals. For example, I stayed up all night long helping Joe Smith at the hospital - now I'm a real social worker. I worked two shifts in a row - now I'm a real health care professional. That's why I'm a little cranky today. That's why I'm getting wasted at the weekends. We begin to justify negative behaviours because of the positive things that we do.
The good news is that compassion fatigue can be identified, arrested and treated at any time.
Just like in an airplane incident when oxygen masks appear, you need to put your mask on first before helping others. We don't do that, we try to help others first. We give out of who we are and, if we don't care for ourselves, we certainly cannot care for others.
Do this every single day for the rest of your life - take ten minutes just for you - ten minutes to put your mask on you first - ten minutes to pray, or meditate, to exercise or take a walk but ten minutes to care for you.
Watch the 12 minute talk here:
A lot of those in the helping professions could be suffering from compassion fatigue due to what they have experienced in the pandemic. What can we do to help them care for themselves?
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From a TEDx talk, 28/07/2020