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What is Compassion Fatigue?

As we enter Mental Health Awareness Week, I have thought about multiple topics to talk about today. I could keep to the theme of nature and its positive impact on mental health. I could talk about ways to de-stress; self-reflect and being our whole selves. However, I have decided today to talk about compassion fatigue. I recently facilitated a support group discussion for line managers who work for an organisation caring for animals. The phrase compassion fatigue was used a lot when describing what was the biggest impact on their mental health most recently.  This is a term that is not commonly used but is something that we should really be aware of and looking out for the signs.

So, what is Compassion Fatigue?

The technical definition of compassion fatigue, also known as second-hand shock and secondary stress reaction, is a type of stress that results from helping or wanting to help those who are traumatized or under significant emotional duress.

Compassion fatigue is common in many professions as well as personal/family circumstances. Carers of family members or parenting where there has been a trauma are common and should not be underestimated in its impact.

In some professions, due to the nature of the care they offer, this trauma and emotional duress can be a common occurrence, it can really take its toll on the line managers in the organisation. Not only do those line managers have their own emotions to deal with surrounding the event, but they are also supporting their team members. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue from a work perspective it can be doubly as hard when also balancing the emotional support you offer outside of work, as a parent, child, sibling, and friend.

When we use generous non-judgemental listening skills, we are using empathy to build our relationships and create that trusted environment to encourage someone to be open about their emotions. When we empathise with someone it creates a level of vulnerability on our part. It means that we are connecting with our own emotions to put ourselves in that person’s shoes. This can mean that we become more susceptible to developing signs of compassion fatigue if we are not aware and put in measures to reduce the risk of developing the condition.

What are the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue?

As with many mental health conditions, this can have an impact on both physical and mental health. Some of the most common signs of compassion fatigue are:

  • Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion.
  • Depersonalization.
  • Feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic or caregiver relationship.
  • Irritability.
  • Feelings of self-contempt.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Weight loss.
  • Headaches.
  • Poor job satisfaction.

How can we prevent compassion fatigue?

Self-care is important when we are taking on any kind of caring role. You need to take the time to look after yourself to be in a safe position to support others. Here are some activities to consider that can help you to support yourself:

  • Reducing stressful workloads, working with your employer to make the workload manageable. Open and honest communication is key for both parties.
  • Monitoring sleep patterns.
  • Taking regular breaks and periods of time away from work.
  • Meditation or mindfulness practices.
  • Journaling.
  • Professional support talking therapy or counseling.
  • Regular exercise.

How can compassion fatigue be treated?

One of the many emotions that can be generated by compassion fatigue is that of guilt. But instead of entering the world of self-doubt, there are several options to support recovery:

  • Talking about feelings with someone you trust.
  • Seek professional support such as counseling or talking therapies.
  • Learning more about compassion fatigue and how it affects people.
  • Regular exercise.
  • Following a healthy diet.
  • Focus on developing a healthy sleep routine.
  • Developing hobbies different from work.
  • Developing positive coping strategies.
  • Reaching out to support groups and networks.

Experts highly recommend those dealing with compassion fatigue engage in professional support that suits them. Alongside self-care routines to build resilience and promote recovery. You can contact your GP or your local IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapy) service to access support that works for you.

Claire is a Mental Health & Wellbeing practitioner living in Gloucestershire. She is passionate about creating psychologically safe environments for people to thrive. She is a busy working mummy to two children and a Hungarian Vizsla called Rufus. Claire enjoys running, yoga and practices mindfulness on a regular basis.