“We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer. We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.” C. Figley, 1995.
Compassion fatigue is the emotional residue or strain of exposure experienced by those who support those suffering especially from traumatic experiences. It is often due to the empathy the helper feels from working with those they serve.
Some symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
- Nervous system arousal (sleep disturbance, intrusive thoughts…)
- Increase of emotional intensity
- Loss of motivation
- Change in the way one views self, others, and the cosmos
- Loss of hope and meaning
- Isolation and loss of morale
- Etc. Etc. Etc.
What we are currently experiencing in our world today with COVID-19 is taking its toll on everyone, especially those who are at the forefront of caring for others. The unsung heroes could be suffering in silence, unbeknoweth to the rest of the world. Those charged with the responsibility of supporting others may be struggling with their own inner issues. Given their roles and responsibilities, many of them are likely to keep their internal struggles to themselves, because “they are the helpers and they should not feel afraid, panic, anxious, fatigued, etc. They should be strong for others”. This is the stigma associated to helpers, and these helpers live through it, at times silently, until they reach a breaking point.
Compassion fatigue can generate vicarious trauma and burnout. It is not only in the helping profession that this can occur. Many people are currently forced to stay at home with their families, and families come in all shapes and sizes. Family relationships can be fulfilling, at the same time draining. Many people are experiencing relationship burnout. Parents are unable to handle their children, couples are unable to live with each other in a healthy way, the constant presence and proximity is posing serious risks of emotional, physical and psychological abuse. There have been many domestic violence cases reported.
Many people are experiencing emotional tornados.
If you remove the letters DEM from the word PANDEMIC, you get PANIC. Pandemic has been associated with fear. Fear could be defined as the anticipation of pain, and this breeds anxiety. When we are anxious, this causes biological chaos through our autonomic system, putting it on overdrive. The increased adrenal levels lead to endocrine imbalance, compromising our judgement, immune system, relationships, etc. We are likely to make decisions that could lead to regret later on.
Most of us today are having to deal with our scared inner child. We are likely to be on the fight/flight mode, we are unsure of what is going to happen to us and to our loved ones, and most of us are anticipating their pain before it actually happens. Our otherwise well organized and predictable life has been thrown into disarray and we are aware more than ever that we are not omnipotent.
It is imperative to find ways to deal with our current situation, otherwise it will deal with us in the best way it knows how.
We need to be able to identify early warning signs that send our endocrine system into chaos. We need to remember that we owe it to ourselves to take care of ourselves irrespective of what is happening outside us. We need to adopt healthy coping choices.
Some tips to help us cope include:
- Know that it is your responsibility to take care of yourself
- Live the present moment as opposed to anticipating pain
- Reach out to others – social distancing is not social isolation – it is actually not social distancing but physical distancing. Remember it is OK to experience fatigue, burnout, lethargy. It is your system`s way of telling you that you need to address your own needs
- Comfort your scared inner child
- Choose what you focus on – what we pay attention to magnifies, so let`s look at the positive things in our life
- Read only what is beneficial to you from reliable sources
- Be creative and use your time well. Have a reasonable structure
- Choose what you eat and drink
- Practice mindfulness: take deep conscious breaths, and allow the breath to fill you with positivity. Meditation is a great way to do this. Meditation has been associated with dopamine production – feel good hormones are activated
- Be aware of early warning signs of panic and anxiety and arrest them before they become a tornado
- Be grateful. Gratitude has been associated with the production of endorphins that boost our overall wellbeing
- Work smart – for those of us who are working from home, ensure you have a regular working time, and “close” your office when it is the right time
- Limit the time you spend on social media – there is a lot of information out there that could lead to infodemic, which will affect our wellbeing
- Let go of expectations – some expectations leave us more vulnerable if they are not fulfilled. Do what you can now with the present moment
- Reach out to others – when we help another person, the feel good hormones are activated. The bible says that there is more joy in giving than in receiving, and I fully believe this
- Abandon yourself to the Higher Power, the Absolute Creator, and remember to say the serenity prayer:
God, grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And the Wisdom to know the difference.