Are You Suffering From Compassion Fatigue?

Secondary traumatic stress (STS) is a little-known trauma-based mental disorder that affects the lives of an untold number of people. In fact, STS is so unknown that even those who suffer from the condition often have no idea what is happening to them, dismissing their feelings of anxiety, depression and misery as an outgrowth of too much work and not enough relaxation.

And in truth, the condition does relate to work, but not in the way its victims think. People employed in the helping professions (medicine, health and human services, child welfare work, psychological counseling, addiction rehabilitation, animal rescue, nonprofit organizing, etc.) are frequently exposed to some of the worst examples of abuse, mistreatment and exploitation imaginable. For empathic individuals who chose these professions because of their desire to help others, it can all become quite overwhelming, and after a certain point the emotional firewalls they erect to protect themselves may crumble into dust.

When this happens, secondary traumatic stress can develop. Despite not being directly impacted by the pain or atrocity of the men, women, children or animals they care or advocate for, workers in the helping professions are no longer able to maintain their emotional boundaries. They internalize the suffering of their clients so completely that they begin to experience the side effects of trauma themselves, as if something awful had happened to them. The turmoil they experience is secondhand and indirect, but it is intense enough to disturb their peace of mind, affect their on-the-job performances and impact them in numerous ways in their daily lives.

More popularly known as compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress can produce a long list of disruptive symptoms, including:

  • A loss of empathic response
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Sleeplessness
  • Hyper-alertness and a quickness to startle
  • Perpetual guilt
  • Social withdrawal
  • Un-diagnosable physical illnesses
  • Unexplained and uncontrollable fear
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • The onset of cynical attitudes
  • Loss of creativity and imagination
  • Inability to listen or concentrate
  • Failure to maintain personal hygiene

In many ways, secondary traumatic stress mimics the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), albeit in a less severe form. But once it develops, STS is persistent and life-altering and can worsen over time if treatment for the condition is not sought immediately (which it seldom is).

For victims of STS in humanitarian fields, it is the loss of their natural compassion and idealism that causes the most anxiety. Many will even abandon their careers, believing they are burned out beyond redemption and can no longer fulfill their responsibilities.

Who Is Most Vulnerable to Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Anyone involved in public service, healthcare, education, social work, counseling or child or animal welfare work is vulnerable to STS. Nevertheless, studies show a greater risk for women, the deeply empathic, those who carry heavy workloads, people who are socially isolated, individuals who lack training in how to handle trauma and those with a history of unacknowledged or unresolved personal tragedy.

One study claimed that 85 percent of emergency room nurses display at least some symptoms consistent with this disorder. Other reports claim up to 50 percent of all child welfare and advocacy workers are at high risk of developing STS (if they don’t have it already), and that as many as one-quarter of all therapists who work with traumatized patients on a regular basis are also highly vulnerable. Lawyers who represent the victims of violent assault are known to manifest STS symptoms quite frequently, and those who advocate for abused animals face extreme threats to their emotional stability from the sheer scale of the suffering they are often forced to confront.

Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder Could Affect Anyone

Traumatic events can change the lives of the victims forever. But tragedy has a long reach, and its psychologically jarring effects can even affect those who provide aid and assistance to victims of crime, torture, exploitation or injustice. In addition, friends and family members of abuse victims are also vulnerable to this condition, as well as full-blown PTSD.

In truth, STS does represent a universal threat, at least potentially since most of us are touched indirectly by tragedy at various times in our lives. Naturally, awareness of the existence of this disorder is the first step to overcoming it, and those who are employed in the caring professions should remain on the lookout for symptoms associated with STS and be prepared to take action if they find themselves undergoing excessive emotional turmoil.

Fortunately, counseling and therapy can benefit the victims of STS tremendously. Sufferers shouldn’t have to leave jobs they love and are passionate about, and with the help of other caring professionals, this result can be avoided in almost every instance.

Posted on April 15th, 2015
Posted in Mental Health

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