“We are living through the most exciting, challenging, and critical times in human history—possibly the most critical time in the history of life on Earth. Never before has so much been possible; never before has so much been at stake. And never before has the rate of change been so fast. We are being led ever more rapidly toward what I have called a ‘white hole in time’”. –Peter Russell, “Waking Up in Time”.
Simply stated, these last few years have been challenging. Of course, much good has also flowed from this time, but overall, it has felt very heavy. Anger, apathy, and distrust seem to have increased tenfold around the United States over the last few years. Personally, the only other time in my lifetime I have experienced this level of stress was when my ex-husband was deployed to Iraq after the attacks of 9/11. Even though there was a lot of fear and pain after 9/11, we collectively came together as a country to fight the bad guys, the terrorists. But now we seem to be fighting each other. At times, this period of existence can feel very uncertain and unsettling.
And I know we are all feeling it; parents, teachers, nurses/doctors, therapists/social workers, police officers, military personnel…. humans. I hear it from my friends, family, and clients. I see it in the news and on social media. I know it because I am experiencing it too.
We are feeling the challenge of this time. And some of us may even be experiencing a by-product of this challenging time in history; Compassion Fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a condition that impacts our whole self; mind-body-spirit. Karl La Rowe, a therapist who specializes in treating Compassion Fatigue and Secondary Trauma, sees Compassion Fatigue as energy frozen within ourselves; like having pent up or trapped energy (emotion) that we have not resolved or released.
When experiencing Compassion Fatigue, we are exhausted from putting so much of our energy and care into supporting others. We are left depleted and drained. Our entire state of well-being is stressed and strained. We may find we have nothing left in the tank and are on the brink of a complete burnout. Compassion Fatigue can lead to Burnout. It can creep up on us but accelerate quickly like a wildfire that can decimate even the healthiest of forests.
According to research by Nagash & Sahin (2011), some warning signs and symptoms of Compassion Fatigue include:
- Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion
- Loss of empathy
- Loss of respect
- Feelings of inequity
- Weight loss
Some other symptoms that arise, include stomach issues (IBS), difficulty sleeping (including waking up thinking about work), depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, low frustration tolerance, increased substance use, social withdrawal, procrastination, resentment of the job, and hypertension.
It is, of course, possible to reduce your risk of experiencing Compassion Fatigue or to bounce back from Compassion Fatigue and return to your most vibrant self. But it takes a commitment of a consistent practice of self-care. Self-care is comprised of so many elements and your personal plan will be different from the next person’s plan. But self-care can include managing our sleep (getting more of it), eating a healthy and balanced diet, reducing consumption of alcohol and caffeine, spending time decompressing in healthy leisure activities, taking time out for breaks (including vacations), spending quality time in nurturing relationships and creating healthy boundaries for work/life balance.
Here are daily steps and strategies to buffer you from Compassion Fatigue:
Start the day consciously. Begin your day 15 minutes earlier than you usually get up. Only 15 minutes. Set your alarm, remind yourself before you go to bed that you will be getting up earlier in the morning. Remind yourself that you will get restorative and restful sleep and the 15 minutes will not be missed.
When you hear your alarm, turn it off and get comfortable in bed, whether you are lying down or sitting down doesn’t matter.
Ground with feelings of love and connectedness. Take a few deep breaths. Or try my favorite, 4-7-8 deep breathing technique for a set of three breaths. Return to slow, comfortable breaths at your pace. Imagine breathing in the word LOVE into your body. Bring to your mind’s eye all the things, people, animals, experiences, etc, you love. Allow the feeling of love to fill your mind and body. Now, imagine breathing out the word LOVE to your world. Send love to all the things, people, animals, experiences that reminded you of love.
While still comfortable, begin to visualize how you want your day to go. Give yourself positive and affirming statements regarding your day. Such as, “I will have enough time to get my work done”, “Everything will flow smoothly today”, “I will speak clearly in my meeting and will be heard by my boss/ co-workers”, “Today, I will focus on taking care of my needs: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual”, “Today, I am going to let any stress go immediately after recognizing it is increasing”, “Today I will make food choices that best support me”, “Today, I will treat all people I encounter with the love and respect they deserve”. Imagine how that will feel. This reminds us that we can be in-control of ourselves and encourages a feeling of being centered.
And then start your regular morning routine.
When beginning your day try to connect with a larger purpose. The “why” behind our chosen career. When entering your place of employment or opening your laptop to begin working think to yourself, “I do this because…” and add your personal reasons for your commitment to your work. This can be done before interacting with our children as well. It is a reminder that we are actively choosing to live life on purpose and not helpless within our daily interactions.
During your day take frequent short breaks to refresh your mind and/or body and to clear negative energy. The easiest way to do this is to engage in deep breathing. Setting aside time to meditate will also leave you feeling refreshed and able to release any negative energy.
Remember to utilize your social support network throughout the day or after the workday has ended to decompress and debrief. Practice releasing the energy/emotion at the end of the day. Create a practice of feeling free and clear of negative energy when leaving work.
End your day with a practice of gratitude. Even on the crappiest of days, we can still muster up 3 things we are grateful for at the end of the day. And I challenge you to recall the positives or small wins from the day and remember the emotion that accompanied them. They were there, we just tend to dismiss them. But they deserve our attention and thanks.
For my therapist and other helper tribe, for more information and strategies on reducing Compassion Fatigue, check out the books: “Surviving Compassion Fatigue: Help for Those Who Help Others” by Beverly D. Kyer and “Help for the Helpers” by Babette Rothschild.
If you are experiencing any signs or symptoms of Compassion Fatigue or Burnout and are struggling, I would highly encourage you to reach out to a licensed, trained therapist for support. If you are experiencing any suicidal thoughts, I encourage you to reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), help is always available.
And remember…take care of you.