Compassion Fatigue: What is it, and how do we cope with it?

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The George Floyd Memorial. Photo by Lorene Akroush.

By Amy Marschall, Psy.D

As America continues to undergo one of the largest civil rights movements in our history, more and more people are uniting behind this cause for the first time. While new faces and bodies can bring renewed passion and energy to a movement, anyone who has been an ally or advocate for some time is familiar with the dreaded compassion fatigue. Similar to burnout, compassion fatigue refers to becoming drained and distressed from witnessing the pain and suffering of others. Well-intentioned individuals can become so exhausted by the work that they find themselves psychologically unable to continue. Those who want to make a positive difference must understand what compassion fatigue is, identify what it feels like for themselves, and be able to combat it.

What does compassion fatigue look like?

Sometimes referred to as “secondary trauma,” compassion fatigue occurs when someone takes on another person’s pain and is overwhelmed by it. According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, although it is not a mental disorder, compassion fatigue is brought on by stress and empathy and has symptoms that can look like trauma. Although each individual’s emotional experience is unique, many people struggling with compassion fatigue find themselves feeling “shut down” or numb, even to things they used to enjoy. They might feel depleted of energy and unable to do basic self-care like showering or eating.

Conversely, others might find that they are unable to disengage or “turn off” their empathy response. They have such intense emotions that they can’t cope and might experience intrusive thoughts about the work they are doing. These people are at increased risk for self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. They might also become irritable and lash out at loved ones.

Because our mind and body are a single unit, compassion fatigue also often manifests itself physically. People struggling with compassion fatigue report sleep disturbance (difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or not feeling rested no matter how long they sleep), headaches, stomachaches, vomiting, or diarrhea.

How do I know if I am experiencing compassion fatigue?

As noted in the last section, compassion fatigue can look slightly different for each person. You can learn to pay attention and notice what symptoms arise for you. Although the physical symptoms of compassion fatigue are unpleasant, they can serve as a handy tool to let you know when you are struggling. It’s not uncommon for people to struggle to notice the psychological symptoms of compassion fatigue. This is because your brain is the organ tasked with telling you if there is a problem, and psychological symptoms occur in your brain. Imagine that the “check engine” light in your car burned out. You probably wouldn’t realize right away that the light was broken, and you would have no idea that your car could not alert you that something was wrong.

Because of this, we can rely on those physical symptoms to alert us that we are struggling. In my own experience, compassion fatigue has a huge impact on my sleep. I have learned that, if I start struggling to fall asleep at night, sleeping through my alarm, and having upsetting dreams about my work, I need to take a mental health day.

Since it can be hard to notice the psychological symptoms of compassion fatigue in yourself, I recommend creating a small group of fellow advocates who can hold each other accountable for self-care. You can keep track of each other’s stress levels and cue each other to when you need some extra support.

Another tip about compassion fatigue: if you are wondering about if these symptoms apply to you, there is a good chance that they do. There is no threshold for how much you need to be struggling before you can ask for help.

What should I do if I have compassion fatigue, and how can I prevent it?

We all have different ways that we like to unwind and relax, so one person’s ideal self-care routine will be different than another’s. There are some coping skills that are generally unhealthy, like binge drinking or using hard drugs. But when it comes to healthy coping skills, what is relaxing for one person might be stressful for someone else.

When it comes to compassion fatigue, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is much easier to prevent burnout than to recover from it. Although it is never too late to take care of yourself, learning what your needs and limits are can save you a lot of stress in the long run. What builds you up and makes you feel happy? Self-care is more than hobbies, though. Prioritizing a healthy sleep schedule, eating, and hygiene are just as important.

Monitoring your social media use is huge in preventing compassion fatigue. While these platforms have done wonders for helping us keep in touch with people we love, they can be exhausting. Scrolling can lead to being bombarded with hate and ignorance, and it can be tempting to engage with people who are not willing to hear your message. You have to decide which arguments are worth the energy to engage in. Trolls want to exhaust you so that you do not have the energy to do work that is actually productive, so it’s important to identify and block them.

When checking your social media, notice how you feel. What emotion is the activity bringing up for you? Is this conversation productive? Taking periodic breaks where you deliberately do not check your accounts is important in decompressing also.

Passion is a vital part of progress, but anything you are passionate about is going to drain you if you are not careful. You will get tired, and acknowledging that will allow you to take care of yourself and stay involved in sustainable advocacy work.

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