In this day and age, when we are dealing with a global pandemic, the most crucial thing we require is empathy and compassion. These trying times have taught us to appreciate and respect front-line workers, which primarily comprise those in the helping professions such as physicians, nurses, therapists, counsellors, police officers, social workers, etc.
Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary trauma or vicarious trauma, is the emotional and mental stress reaction faced due to constantly helping or wanting to help people who have gone through traumatic and stressful events. People working with traumatized individuals sometimes tend to absorb the stress and emotional burden faced by the victim, leading to the helper themselves experiencing negative emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms. Compassion fatigue is easier to treat and manage if caught early in comparison to other stress responses such as burnout, a gradually emerging stress reaction whose symptoms can directly be identified in a person’s work and personal life.
Compassion fatigue may affect anybody who is empathetic and willing to assist others, but a few factors make some people more vulnerable than others. Those in the helping professions are the most vulnerable due to the responsibility of assisting or caring for others in need. Often the situation becomes overwhelming, leaving little or no opportunity to take time for themselves. Furthermore, those who have experienced traumatic situations may be readily influenced when attempting to aid others. While assisting others, one must be conscious of their capabilities and limitations.
Experts have expressed concern regarding the state of mental health of individuals in India amidst the pandemic. With a population of 1.3 billion people, India presently has less than 4000 mental health professionals which are much less than the actual numbers required in the country. Further, it has been identified as the most depressed country (National Care Of Medical Health, 2020) and positioned 139 on the happiness Index report (UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2021). All these factors display an increased possibility of compassion fatigue experienced by the mental health professionals as well as the primary caregivers of these individuals
Symptoms Of Compassion Fatigue
- Depressive symptoms such as constant melancholic feeling, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, experiencing constant exhaustion.
- Feeling anxious and restless persistently. Having intrusive worrisome thoughts expecting the worst possible outcomes.
- Lack of empathy leading to a feeling of numbness and detachment towards the patient/ loved one’s, might also deteriorate the quality of care.
- Constant physical exertion and low energy to perform regular tasks.melancholic
- Disturbed sleep patterns. Experiencing too little or too much sleep, nightmares, and lack of deep sleep.
- Loss in appetite is also very common which further weakens the body and declines mood and cognitive processes.
- Negative beliefs about oneself and the environment around.
- The executive function which includes the ability to make sound decisions, memory, learning, planning etc. are hampered.
- The emotional and physical symptoms further enhance the cognitive consequences due to the lack of much-required rest and space.
The most prevalent symptoms reported are a sense of powerlessness and guilt for taking a break. It is exceedingly difficult for empathic people to take a break and engage in self-care activities. The continual sense of guilt exacerbates the other symptoms, and the individual spirals farther into a state of helplessness.
Ways To Tackle Compassion Fatigue
If you are in the profession of caregiving or a caregiver for a loved one, then the first step is to notice any signs or symptoms of compassion fatigue that you may be experiencing. Take a pause and assess your changing patterns and feelings, your change in behaviour or approach if any.
Assessing your beliefs
Even when one recognises the signs, taking a break may feel difficult and cause feelings of guilt, resulting in overworking and exhaustion. Pause whatever you are doing and evaluate your beliefs and set realistic expectations and build an empathetic view of your own needs.
It is important for people belonging to the helping profession to set clear boundaries and consciously avoid thinking about work and their clients during their personal time. A good practice might be to have clear working hours and use different cell phones or numbers for personal and private communication. Reducing constant exposure to negative news via television, social media, and mobile news apps will further eliminate overwhelming information.
Spend time on your hobbies or start a new hobby. Take dedicated time off for yourself everyday by engaging in uplifting activities like light movies, dance, music, exercise, meeting people etc . Hobbies aid in the catharsis of tension and bad emotions that you may encounter in your daily lives and help achieve a sense of control over your time and connect with yourself.
Mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness is a state of complete awareness and acceptance of the present moment including your feelings, thoughts and behaviours, without any judgments. The technique is developed gradually and can be initially started as a 10-12 min mental exercise such as mindful walking, reading, drawing, or meditating.
Seeking professional help
If self-help is not working out for you, then seeking professional help or support can help you navigate the effects of compassion fatigue. Professional help can help you navigate through the secondary stress responses, especially when the symptoms have started to interfere in the functioning of a person’s professional, personal or social life domain.
Compassion fatigue is a genuine condition, and the symptoms can be very stressful and troubling. Empathy is a valuable skill for helping professionals, caregivers, and human well-being; however, it is critical for professional caregivers and caregivers in the family to be aware of their own needs, take regular time off, and seek professional help if necessary for self-nurturance.