Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Compassion Fatigue

Hello, friends! Today I’d like to talk about compassion fatigue. This is a term I heard only recently – last week, in fact, when I opened the new issue of the Texas Bar Journal. Compassion fatigue affects those in helping professions (health care, counseling, teaching), caregivers, and is recently gaining awareness as affecting lawyers. This makes intuitive sense to me, as lawyers help people, too. No, really, we do. :-)

Compassion fatigue is a type of burnout, and commonly manifests with some or all of the following symptoms: apathy, anxiety, anger, sleep disturbances, substance or food abuse, depression, chronic lateness, exhaustion, frequent headaches, gastrointestinal complaints, hypertension, hopelessness, hypervigilance, inability to maintain a balance of empathy and objectivity, increased irritability, increased startle response, isolation, low self-esteem, perfectionism, pessimism, and workaholism.* It is the result of long-term exposure to emotionally demanding situations.

My list of followers right now is small enough that I know most of you personally, and I know that you are helpers and caregivers by nature. Some of you have a loved one with a chronic illness, some of you are in high-stress situations at all times. According to the above list of symptoms, I am currently suffering from compassion fatigue, so I know some of you probably are, too. So I want to share with you some tips I’ve found on reducing your risk for compassion fatigue, or beginning to heal if you’ve already fallen prey.

Here is a self test. Click to evaluate yourself and see where you fall on the scale. The same organization, the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, also has a test for you to measure how at-risk you are for stress-related illnesses: The Life Stress Test. You may be surprised at your result – I was.

The resources I’ve found all recommend a self-care plan, a way to make sure that you are not neglecting your own needs while caring for others. Some of the suggestions are:

· Make sure you drink enough water, eat healthy foods, and have an exercise program
· Take a few minutes each day to organize your thoughts and prepare for the day ahead
· Learn to say “no.” (This one is hard for me. How about you?)
· Unplug for a while – no phone, TV, or internet. Interact with family members, friends, or pets without technology.
· Encourage your creative side. Give yourself permission to spend time on a hobby.
· Decide how you want to spend your time, and give yourself permission to do it.
· Don’t be afraid to ask for support when you need it.

Turns out I had already started on my own wellness program before I realized what the problem was. I’m exercising regularly (!!!), trying to eat more healthy foods, taking up my hobbies again, trying to spend more time with friends and family, and lately have been reading in the evenings instead of watching TV or a movie. Last night I went to sleep at 8:00 p.m. and feel noticeably better today.

How do you manage your stress? Any practical tips to share?

Further reading:

The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project
Reserved for resources I find later or you suggest to me

*List obtained from Compassion Fatigue and Attorneys: What is Your Self-Care Plan? by Christie Sprowls, Psy.D. Texas Bar Journal vol. 73, No. 8, September 2010.