Arts & Culture

Caring Too Much—Compassion Fatigue

By Valerie Broadway

Over the years, I’ve heard about animal rescuers who could no longer cope with the seemingly never ending cases of abuse and neglect. When faced with the enormity of the problem, their sadness, frustration, and even guilt overwhelmed them and they ultimately took their own lives.

The term “compassion fatigue” was coined in the early 1990s. Compassion Fatigue is described by Dr. Charles Figley and Professor Paul Henry Kurzweg of Tulane University’s Traumatology Institute as, “a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that can create a Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) for the helper.”

People at risk of compassion fatigue/ STS are workers or volunteers who routinely witness others experiencing tragedy or illness, resulting in physical, mental, and/or health related trauma. Some examples of those at risk of compassion fatigue/STS are veterinarians and animal welfare workers, social workers, first responders, medical and mental health workers, advocates for the homeless and victims of domestic abuse, as well as, lawyers who routinely represent these victims. Journalists are another group at risk of developing Compassion Fatigue/STS as a result of repeatedly covering traumatic stories. Military personnel in conflict zones can suffer from both Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Compassion Fatigue/STS. PTSD, as a result of trauma they personally experienced, and compassion fatigue/STS, from witnessing the trauma of others.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue include numbness, irritability, depression, lowered concentration, withdrawal, anger, aches and pains, loss of hope, and work absenteeism. In extreme cases it can lead people to commit suicide. Suicide rates are much higher in some of the professions mentioned as compared to other occupations. Some people have financial difficulties as they spend more money than they can afford in an effort to solve the problems they are so passionate about. Denial about having compassion fatigue can be a symptom and can prevent people from seeking help. Often family members recognize there is a problem before the person acknowledges it themselves. Divorce rates and substance abuse issues are at higher levels in those struggling with compassion fatigue/STS.

Some things people can do to help prevent and/or treat compassion fatigue are to implement stress and anxiety management practices. Reduce stress by taking breaks from work, find ways to relax, get enough sleep, laugh, perform breathing exercises, meditate, and participate in physical exercise and/or recreational activities. Participation in individual and/or group talk therapy can be helpful. It may be beneficial to journal about feelings and document successes.

Those dealing with stress should be kind to themselves and allow time, energy, and funds for self-care. It may be important to set emotional boundaries, and delegate duties, when possible. A tough reality is learning to accept the fact that every situation is not going to have a successful outcome.

People with Compassion Fatigue/ STS can find it difficult to ask for help but reaching out is an important step.

Many compassionate people can’t help but struggle with the pain they witness, but it’s important to remember it isn’t selfish to take care of you. Be kind to yourself. Recognize and be grateful for the good things in your life. It’s important to find a balance between caring for others and self-care. As it says in the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Burning out or becoming so overwhelmed that suicide seems like a viable option is a tragedy that must be avoided. Stay healthy so you may press on with your good work. The world is a better place with you in it. Thank you to all the compassionate helpers!

To see where you fall on the compassion satisfaction/fatigue continuum take the Professional Quality of Life (PROQOL) questionnaire. It was developed by Dr. Beth Hundall Stamm, one of the world’s leading experts on compassion fatigue.

Links are in English at ProQOL_5_English_Self-Score_3-2012. pdf and in Spanish at Oct05.pdf.