What is it? Despite being extremely prevalent, compassion fatigue is not a well known condition. It primarily affects those who work in occupations that expose one to a large amount of human tragedy – nurses, doctors, police officers, fire fighters, social workers, psychotherapists and many others. However, one might argue that because of the media’s obsession with negative news, most of the world these days suffers from compassion fatigue to some extent.
What causes one to develop compassion fatigue? As humans, we are programmed to feel empathy for others. It is a social animal mechanism that helps to ensure our species survival. In some people this ability is developed much stronger than in others, while in a few individuals it may be rudimentary or even aberrantly absent. Compassion is the ability to imagine and experience the pain that is not your own. The problem with modern times is that the news literally bombards us with negative information, with horrible stories of human misery and suffering – and it paints a picture of a life that is full of darkness and doom. In order to remain happy, one must fend off depressing thoughts of mortality and the fragility of human life, and it sure doesn’t help to be reminded of death and suffering every day. Compassion fatigue is not something that occurs over night. In a way, it is a defense mechanism that one develops over the span of many years – in essence, it is a learned ability to remain impermeable to human suffering and increased sense of own vulnerability.
Who does it affect? Ironically, people drawn to choose caretaking professions – nurses, doctors, counselors – are those who by their nature are most capable of empathy and thus most prone to the eventual burnout. The most callous physician you ever met could have been the most compassionate and idealistic medical student years ago, but he burnt himself out by carrying too much human burden on his shoulders for years, he is so numb now he simply cannot care any more…
How does it present? Most people who suffer from compassion fatigue do not realize what affects them. They simply feel tired, disenchanted with life, apathetic and in general burn out. All the suppressed an unprocessed emotional reactions can present with physical manifestations as well – headaches, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, depression, etc. Most physicians I know blame their burn out on the stress in their lives, on long hours and the burden of the administrative paperwork without realizing that none of those factors mattered earlier, before the compassion fatigue took their toll on them.
What is vicarious trauma? Those who provide help to victims of disaster and victims of trauma and assault can suffer from Vicarious Trauma Syndrome, also known as “secondary post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. People can also develop compassion fatigue when they take care of a chronically ill family member.
What can be done about it? How to deal with compassion fatigue is a personal decision. For some people the only answer may be changing jobs and many health professionals chose to move away from clinical care at some point in their careers often without even realizing the true motivation for that. For other people simply finding balance in life, taking time to talk through and allow themselves to process what they feel on emotional level, and to work on practicing more of a Zen approach to life may be enough. Being aware of the compassion fatigue syndrome is the most important step toward overcoming it. And as far as “global” compassion fatigue goes, you might simply try to shield yourself from the negative information in the news and see if it makes you happier.
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