5 Tips to Prevent Compassion Fatigue in Times of Suffering

Protect your energy from overwhelm with boundaries, limits, self-care, and your support system.

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It’s hard to look around the world right now and not feel overwhelmed by the suffering going on.

Fires burning out of control, military conflict, mass shootings, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions — the list seems to go on and on. The powerful energy of these events can take a toll on those of us who feel deep compassion for suffering. We desperately want to help however we can. But to be of greater service to those who need us, we must remember to first protect our own energies. Compassion Fatigue is a thing — with very real consequences.

After eleven years in education, I know Compassion Fatigue well. It can become absolutely debilitating to worry about, care for, and nurture other human beings on a continual basis. I took on my students’ anxieties, traumas, and emotions all day, every day. On top of that, trying to manage my own struggles with mental health…well, you can imagine what that did to me. Though I don’t personally know the people who are currently suffering like I did my students, I still feel their pain. I want to help. But I know better now than to pour myself into that endeavor without centering myself first.

These five tips help me do just that and ensure that I don’t become paralyzed by feelings of emotional overwhelm in times of crisis:

1. Know your limits and how you are best fit to help.

Some can go right to the front lines and dig in. Others are depleted by that work. There are so many ways to help, and they are all important. If you can’t be on the front lines, perhaps your contribution is financial in nature. Maybe you have a knack for organizing people. It could be that you offer your garage to store supplies. Be honest about what you can take on, and what you can’t. And think outside the box when it comes to ways to help. You may have a gift to share that no one has thought of yet. Writing this, even, is a piece of my contribution. I write it in the hope that it will reach others and allow them to serve better. Flashy and bold? Not really. But it could be a ripple that leads to something big.

2. Make time for self-care.

Exercise, nutrition, meditation, and whatever else makes you feel most alive and energetic are crucial in times of stress. We’ve all heard the saying that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Keeping your own energy high is essential in being able to give your best to those who need it.

3. Manage your media consumption.

Being bombarded with suffering, and even just the constant influx of information on any scale can render you overwhelmed. Consume just enough information to stay informed, and then schedule times away from media to allow your body and mind time to process the information.

4. Create and enforce boundaries between service and personal life.

Creating a barrier can help you protect the emotional space that you need to recover. We’ve all experienced stressful times that seem to follow us no matter what we’re doing. After serving or helping in times of struggle, have a ritual that you practice before moving into your personal space. 

I used to do my workouts after work when I was a teacher. While most people couldn’t understand how I had the energy to do that after a long day of serving my students, that’s exactly why I did it. It was a symbolic barrier between the two parts of my day. Carrying the emotional exhaustion with me as I collapsed onto the couch (no matter how much I wanted to), was not going to give me a way to release it. Working out did. And it accomplished number two on this list — two birds with one stone. When immersed in the service of others, find your symbolic barrier to allow a fresh mindset when moving into your personal time.

5. Utilize your support system.

Have a support system to talk to or spend time with away from the heaviness of your work with those in need. Seeking professional help can also be beneficial in working through the emotional toll of serving others in crisis. Just like the people you serve need you, you need others to keep you lifted up.

We are all called to help in our own ways. And we need all kinds of helpers. Don’t ever let the fear of not doing enough stop you from doing something. Perhaps right now, you are called to help in a small way. Maybe another time you will be called to help in a big way. When you check in with yourself openly and honestly, you will know what you are meant to do in the moment. And when you operate in the way you are meant to, with your emotional strength intact, it will be more powerful than you can imagine.

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