Compassion Fatigue

I recently attended a workshop on Compassion Fatigue, which offered information I think a lot of us can use right about now. Not only will it be good to know what Compassion Fatigue is and how to counteract its effects in our own lives and ministries, but it will be helpful to recognize the signs of it in youth and other adults, so that we can help and support them. Much of the information in this post comes from this site, which has a great deal more information and expertise in this area.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion Fatigue is also known as Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder. It results from repeated exposure to trauma experienced by others, either through hearing their story or encountering it in some other way. It’s different from burnout, which is not specifically related to trauma exposure, though the two can be experienced simultaneously. Compassion fatigue results, in part, from not processing the strong emotions that arise from experiencing these secondary traumas, and instead trying to power our way through them.

So if we are hearing stories from our youth about bullying, or abuse, or family dysfunction; if we are seeing friends or colleagues dealing with racism, or serious illness, or other traumas, and we are the shoulder they lean on, we need to be aware that over time this may also lead to recognizable (and understandable) compassion fatigue that will affect our ability to minister to them. Though we are not experiencing the trauma directly, we need to acknowledge the trauma will still have a significant impact on our body, mind, and spirit.

What are the effects of compassion fatigue?

The effects can be physical (e.g. insomnia), behavioral (increased use of alcohol; no longer doing favorite activities), or psychological (insensitivity or hypersensitivity to emotional material). These are just examples. This article does a good job of outlining many of the possible signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue.

What I gather is that these symptoms are all defense mechanisms that are about avoiding the pain of the suffering involved in processing secondary trauma. We use whatever we have at our disposal to numb, rather than feel. For example, if instead of coming home and making dinner and watching a favorite program, we consistently get bad take-out and channel surf, that’s something we need to pay attention to. What are the patterns that suggest we are trying to repress or numb our emotions?

How do we alleviate or prevent compassion fatigue?

The article I mentioned above talks about the ABC’s: Awareness, Balance, and Connection. Be mindful and pay attention when you notice signs of compassion fatigue. Take breaks and practice self-care (as Kellor noted earlier this month). And find a support system, taking care that you are processing feelings, not just complaining about others.

Compassion Fatigue Dos and Donts for MinistersHere’s a list of do’s and don’ts, slightly adapted for us in ministry:

Find someone to talk to.
Understand that the pain you feel is normal.
Exercise and eat properly.
Get enough sleep.
Take some time off.
Develop interests outside of the church.
Identify what’s important to you.
Work harder and longer.
Neglect your own needs and interests.
Blame others.
Look for a new job, buy a new car, get a divorce or have an affair.
Fall into the habit of complaining with your colleagues.

[Original source: Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which would know a thing or two about Compassion Fatigue.]

I wonder if many of us feel any of the following: I have no right to feel bad, since this didn’t happen to me. Or: I need to be strong for this other person, since they’re the one going through this, not me. Or: I must be weak to be feeling this way, since I’m not the one who has to deal with this. Or: I must not be any good at my job if I’m feeling this way after just hearing someone’s story.

To which I would not that “compassion” means to “suffer with.” I’m afraid that means we’re going to suffer; we can’t just skip that part. If we see other people suffering, we know that they need comfort. We need to do the same for ourselves. It’s not selfish. It’s caring. And in so doing, we will be better able to care for others.