Does your work involve caring for or supporting others?
If you’re frequently exposed to other’s suffering, you may be at risk of experiencing compassion fatigue (CF), a.k.a. secondary traumatic stress (STS).
9 common signs of compassion fatigue include:
- Signs of physical anxiety such as breathing difficulties, muscle tension and digestive problems
- A sense of hopelessness
- Decreased ability to empathise
- Irritability and impatience
- Decreased productivity and job satisfaction
- A reduced ability to feel pleasure
- Trouble sleeping
- An urge to isolate yourself from others
- Self-doubt and reduced self-esteem
If you think you might be experiencing compassion fatigue, you can take the Professional Quality of Life Scale Screening test (PROQOL) – it’s available to download for free here.
It’s important to note that compassion fatigue is a normal human response commonly seen in highly empathetic individuals.
It isn’t a disease or illness. It’s a temporary state—a spectrum—that you can shift further out of.
So, how can you deal with compassion fatigue?
Your mindset plays a big role in your susceptibility to this phenomenon.
Here are five factors associated with compassion fatigue:
- High expectations of work
- Idealistic worldviews
- The view that self-care is selfish
- A lack of strong personal boundaries
- An overdeveloped sense of responsibility
With the above in mind, here are three mindset shifts you can make to better protect yourself.
1) “I’ll See the Good Whilst Accepting the Bad”
“Sometimes in life we must fight not only without fear, but also without hope.” – Alessandro Pertini
How much time do you spend ruminating—i.e., getting stuck in thought loops—about things you have little control over?
The highly empathetic, passionate and sensitive people susceptible to compassion fatigue often feel as though they’re carrying the whole weight of the world on their shoulders, and letting go of this overdeveloped sense of responsibility can be truly life-changing. This weighty load is not yours alone to carry!
To help you make this shift, it can be helpful to bring to mind the Serenity Prayer:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”
Suffering is—and always will be—universal.
This fact is the primary tenet of Buddhism (which we argue is a highly practical philosophy for mental wellbeing!). The first noble truth is that suffering, dissatisfaction, and imperfection (“dukkha”) are all around us.
Developing mental resilience is how we handle this difficult fact of life.
Mental resilience is reminding ourselves that positive outcomes are not always achievable.
It’s accepting our human limitations and letting go of perfectionism.
It’s reframing thoughts and situations in the most helpful way possible.
It’s becoming stress-aware and stress-resilient.
It’s seeing the good by not overlooking the “small” ways in which we help every single day, just by being there, offering a listening ear, and reminding vulnerable clients that caring people exist.
When you focus on developing your mental resilience, you make space for what’s called ‘compassion satisfaction’, the feeling of joy and contentment you get from making a difference.
2) “Self-Care is Essential to Mental and Physical Health”
Helping-oriented people often view self-care as a form of self-indulgence. The idea of focusing on themselves makes them feel self-centered, selfish and fills them with shame.
This view of self-care is a hazard to your health.
It’s worth repeating: the view that self-care is selfish is a serious health hazard. We urge you to realise this before it’s too late.
The phrase “self-care” has become incredibly popular recently; you may find it a trite expression. But let’s not forget what it means: taking care of your mental and physical needs.
The body keeps the score when it comes to stress, and self-care is your way of protecting yourself against the dangers of poor mental wellbeing.
Self-care goes hand in hand with stress-awareness; the more stressed you are, the more self-care you need to recover.
This is easier said than done because we often have more awareness of our stress triggers than our signs of stress.
As Mandy Stevens explains in an article in The Guardian, rising stress levels can creep up on us in slow and insidious ways:
“Despite 30 years’ experience as a registered mental health nurse I didn’t recognise, acknowledge or even notice the range of symptoms I had been experiencing, or how they had been affecting me. It was only when I finally cried at work that I realised something was wrong.”
Think you could benefit from getting on top of your stress and self-care?
We can help! Check out our Stress and Autostress Workbook – a powerful self-help workbook to help you develop stress-awareness and stress-resilience.
3) “It’s Okay to Set Compassionate Boundaries”
“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” – Brené Brown
Compassionate boundary setting involves deciding what you will and won’t accept for your wellbeing, and it’s a skill you can get better at over time.
Here are two forms of compassionate boundary setting:
- Stepping back mentally when you recognise you’re being triggered
- Stepping back physically when you notice your stress levels rising
How to Step Back Mentally When You Recognise You’re Being Triggered
When you notice you’re getting carried away by negative thoughts and emotions, observe what you’re experiencing and assess how you can best take care of yourself.
Remember: preventing yourself from becoming overly involved in other people’s suffering allows you to engage in sustainable, effective and rewarding work.
Here are four suggestions for how to do this:
1) Cognitive Distraction
When you notice your mood being deeply affected by another person’s suffering, it’s okay to reduce its impact on you by using cognitive distraction techniques. This isn’t about avoiding your emotions around the situation; it’s a way to allow your emotions to defuse naturally, so they don’t immediately spiral out of control. Find out some ideas for cognitive distraction methods here.
2) Cognitive Restructuring
As mentioned earlier, part of developing your mental resilience skills involves being able to reframe thoughts and situations in the most helpful way possible.
Beverly Diane Kyer talks about how she does this in her role as a social worker in her book Surviving Compassion Fatigue: Help For Those Who Help Others:
“I now acknowledge also my pain that I feel for them and for the horror of the experience they suffered. I now get to transform my feelings. I get to rewrite the story and the ending. For instance, when someone was physically or sexually brutalized I tell myself that their mind (as an act of protection) went to a secret safe place where they were not present during the horror.”
Want to improve your cognitive restructuring skills?
Cognitive restructuring is a powerful self-help method for mental wellbeing. Learn the common cognitive distortions and examples on how to restructure them here.
3) Coping Statements
Take a step back by experimenting with coping statements that help you feel better.
Examples might include:
“I’ve done all that I can. The rest is outside my control.”
“Every day I am helping, just by being here.”
“Help this person.” (Try using this phrase when you’re feeling irritable or impatient to help reorient yourself into a more empathetic state.)
“I got into this line of work because…”
“What I love about my job is…”
4) The Worry Time Exercise
If you find yourself taking home all of the worries and concerns from the day, try completing the Worry Time exercise developed by Robert Leahy, author of The Worry Cure.
This exercise involves regularly allocating a specific time of day to reflect on your worries. Over time, it can help you reduce worry and better compartmentalise your work and personal life.
How to Step Back Physically When You’re Stressed
1) Asking for Help
Beverly Diane Kyer describes her experience around asking for help in her book Surviving Compassion Fatigue:
“Helpers typically do not ask for help. Certainly not I. Perhaps hardest, was to reconcile how my service as a helping professional, service that I was called to and passionate about doing, was hurting me. In the past, I could not fathom this and did not realise that I needed to take care of me while taking care of others. I get it now. This is hard work, painful and distressing work. As important as it is, this work comes with a price, and so I need help to do it well and take care of myself in the process.”
If you’re struggling with compassion fatigue, it’s important to share how you’re feeling with your supervisor. Ask them what reasonable adjustments they could make to help support your mental health and prevent it from deteriorating further. They may refer you to your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or encourage you to explore accessing therapy.
2) Saying No
When you’re so focused on serving others (as those susceptible to compassion fatigue are), saying no can feel hellish at first. However, those who care for you and respect you will accept your need to step back. Every time you say no when you’re overstretched, you’re honoring your needs and protecting your wellbeing.
Recovering from and preventing compassion fatigue begins with awareness and acceptance of your experience.
If you notice you’re experiencing the signs of compassion fatigue, adopting these mindsets can help you feel better:
- “I’ll See the Good Whilst Accepting the Bad”
- “Self-Care is Essential to Mental and Physical Health”
- “It’s Okay to Set Compassionate Boundaries”
Are you looking to improve your mental health and build habits that stick?
Visit thewellnesssociety.org today to find out how we can help!