To undertake the noble task of being a mental health hero and providing care to people who have experienced severe forms of trauma, it’s important to have compassion. Working as a direct care provider, as a mental health professional or in the social services industry, a commitment to help others achieve a better quality of life is key. In order to accomplish this, it’s necessary to understand and empathize with the pain of others and be able to recognize their intrinsic value. It takes courage to navigate the darker recesses of humanity and optimism to see the path forward.
While the goal may be to alleviate the misfortune of others through compassionate care and listening, it’s worth noting that there may be periods when this important work comes with consequences to a provider’s individual wellbeing in the form of compassion fatigue. As the listener, being repeatedly exposed to the firsthand trauma of others can inspire second-hand trauma — the emotional duress and preoccupation that arises when processing the severe mental pain of others. The cumulative effect of second-hand trauma can cause a stress response that taxes a provider’s ability to feel empathy for others.
As desensitization manifests, a provider may feel a lack of enthusiasm for the people they were once so committed to caring for, which can lead to a reduced ability to form empathetic and trusting relationships with them.
Left untreated, compassion fatigue can transition into burnout - a state of pure exhaustion where all motivation and ability to perform a role is compromised and a commitment to a cause is replaced with cynicism.
Being able to recognize the signs of compassion fatigue offers the opportunity to make lifestyle changes before the symptoms progress into burnout.
Emotionally, you may have feelings of:
- Low self-esteem
- Emotional exhaustion
Physically, you may experience:
- Lowered concentration
- A lack of energy
- Physical ailments
In the most extreme cases, you may even experience:
- Intrusive thoughts
- Thoughts of suicide
Occupational triggers for compassion fatigue include high stress environments, demanding caseloads, long workdays or having an inability to establish clear boundaries. As job dissatisfaction and a lowered sense of personal accomplishment begins to creep in, a caregiver may feel the desire to lament about work responsibilities, blame others for poor work performance or skip attending work all together.
While compassion fatigue can affect anyone from family and friends to healthcare professionals, certain groups tend to be more at risk than others. Having a history of trauma, experiencing low levels of social support, being prone to perfectionist tendencies or prioritizing the needs of others can put a person at a disadvantage when processing the events and emotions that lead to compassion fatigue.
The best way to mitigate compassion fatigue is to be cognizant of the symptoms and establish a sense of balance. This can be achieved through self-care and coping techniques, including:
- Proper sleep
- Regular exercise
- Good nutrition
- Practicing acceptance
- Developing hobbies outside of work
Taking time off to recharge and reconnect with the aspects of life that give a person strength may be exactly the kind of break the brain needs. It’s also important for providers to establish and embrace their own support networks by finding people and resources that can help them process difficult emotions and understand their stressors.
While providing relief to others through compassionate care and listening is honorable, it’s important to remember that this kind of emotional labor isn’t without consequence. Being aware of the symptoms of compassion fatigue is the best prevention to avoid succumbing to burnout. By achieving balance, a caregiver can create a healthier future for themselves and the people they care for. The world is desperately in need of benevolent individuals who can lend a charitable ear. Make self-nurturing a priority in order to be a mental health hero to others.