Proven Ways to Prevent Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue and burnout are occupational hazards nurses, physicians and therapists often face over the course of a career. Outside the healthcare system, these emotional risks also can affect family members and friends who are dealing with loved ones affected by addiction.
In a nutshell, compassion fatigue reflects a reduced ability to feel or show empathy or to bear another person’s suffering — to the point that it takes a psychological/emotional toll, one that can lead to burnout if it’s not addressed. It helps to think of compassion fatigue as similar to a muscle overuse injury that can occur when you do the workout too often, too intensely, or for too long.
In addition, the stresses and strains of modern life — work pressure, financial challenges, family responsibilities, everyday hassles like traffic jams and the like — can lower the bar for compassion fatigue to set in. “When we are under chronic stress, [this] lowers our ability to connect with others in meaningful ways,” explains Emma Seppälä, PhD, co-director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Happiness Track (Harper One, 2016). What’s more, “if a situation feels too large to handle, your compassion can also decrease.”
The symptoms of compassion fatigue vary from one person to another. But they can include anger, depression, physical or emotional exhaustion, frequent headaches or gastrointestinal complaints, increased irritability, decreased ability to feel joy, self-medicating (with food or alcohol), and sleep disturbances, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
To prevent compassion fatigue, it’s important to balance self-focus with a focus on others, Seppälä says. To do that, it helps to develop your own personal care plan, one that ensures that you get good nutrition, plenty of sleep, regular exercise, and time to yourself for stress management techniques (such as mindfulness meditation), an enjoyable hobby or spending time in nature. “Do things that make you happy,” Seppälä advises. “Some people might think focusing on their own happiness is selfish but this is not the case. If you are happier, you’ll be more likely and better able to help.”
If you begin to feel overwhelmed by a loved one’s struggles, it’s important to recognize your limits and take a break. Instead, tend to your own emotional needs by spending time with positive, supportive, trusted friends and family members or perhaps by talking to a counselor or therapist. The goal is to build and fortify a good support system around yourself, one that bolsters your strength and helps you recharge your physical and emotional energy and compassion. An added bonus: “By taking care of yourself, you are modeling a way of life that involves self-love, which an addicted person is not doing,” Seppälä says. “Addiction sometimes comes from a longing for love and self-love. By being loving and modeling self-love, you are providing valuable tools” for both of you.
Being able to provide compassion without burning out or becoming an enabler is “a delicate balance,” Seppälä notes. If you take care of your own state of mind and if you stay calm and centered, you will improve your chances of walking that fine line gracefully. It also helps to remind yourself that there’s a difference between helping and enabling: While “helping” an addicted person means assisting him in getting the treatment and recovery support he needs from outside sources, “enabling” involves trying to do whatever you can to fix the immediate crisis without considering how this affects the big picture, says Diana Clark, JD, MA, a family addictions consultant based in New England and author of Addiction Recovery: A Family’s Journey.
So ditch the inclination to try to solve the addicted person’s problems — such as cleaning up the wreckage from unfortunate behavior or trying to break him or her of dependence. Instead, channel your energy and compassion into providing support and the incentive for the person to get professional help and guidance without sacrificing your own self-care. As a 2016 study from Portugal found, being compassionate toward yourself and exercising good self-care skills can help protect you from compassion fatigue when caring for others.
By Stacey Colino