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Compassion Fatigue

August, 2020

Violence, floods, blasts, oil spills, political conflicts, and of course, the Covid-19 virus. Each day, the news is becoming more and more gruesome. With this ever-increasing trauma in the world, do you sometimes become so exhausted that you become numb to this feeling of constant pain and misery?

With every natural calamity, disaster, death or bad news reaching our phone screens and laptops in seconds, the suffering of the affected growingly appears to be a mere statistic.

This feeling of indifference to suffering and of loss of empathy towards others, actually has a name coined for it.

Theoretically, Compassion Fatigue is a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others, often described as the negative cost of caring. It is also referred to as ‘secondary or vicarious trauma’ or ‘second-hand stress reaction’.

Witnessing trauma and pain develops feelings of altruism and the need to help, but prolonged or regular exposure to the same, instead, creates a lack thereof. With each new story, the people facing compassion fatigue become wary of giving and caring for various reasons ranging from exhaustion, feelings of helplessness or overwhelm.

This is experienced frequently by caregivers – doctors, healthcare and emergency professionals, psychologists, among others, and can take various forms. However, it is also common for people with high levels of empathy or people who actively engage in social philanthropy or charity and volunteer work.

Even though the symptoms of compassion fatigue may seem similar to that of a burnout, it is not the same. The symptoms of this kind of vicarious trauma can take many forms including not just exhaustion, cynicism, disrupted sleep, anxiety, headaches, lack of focus, but also feelings of emotional discontent and disconnection, a decreased sense of purpose, denial, lack of self-care and even reliance on drugs and alcohol for some.

However, there has been in-depth research and practical/ application based study on this subject and several ways to prevent and treat the same have been identified or devised. To begin with, identification and acceptance of the problem through the correct means and reaching out for help, are some of the basic first steps. Educating oneself and understanding the complexity of emotions faced rather than denying them is crucial and usually a suppressed aspect by many. To become more mindful of our actions in terms of what we consume and how much we let ourselves get affected, it is essential to gain consciousness of the practical reality, communicate our feelings effectively and set healthy boundaries. Further, like with most emotional stresses, regular exercise and sleep coupled with healthy eating habits, meditation and reflective writing also go a long way in counteracting compassion fatigue.

In cases where the person’s profession compels them to face such form of secondary trauma on a regular basis, there are multiple medical associations to provide support and methods that are practiced. Resilience training is one such program, particularly designed for care workers. This helps to train them on the various risks involved with such fatigue and employ techniques to deal with the symptoms by shifting the focus from pathological stress to successful adaptation. Factors like compassion satisfaction and exquisite empathy have been argued to develop well-boundaried empathetic engagement and enhance satisfaction, hence, contribute to resiliency.

Another technique, called ‘psychic numbing’, is used by professionals to comparatively decrease empathetic instincts when faced with a real issue, in order to be able to think rarionally and generate practical solutions instead of being constantly overwhelmed on the job.

Even though this article only covers the tip of the iceberg, as we explore the topic and try to define a layman’s perspective, it is rather conspicuous that every individual must be well equipped to recognize signs and develop mechanisms to take care of their mental health. Further, it is of utmost importance that mental health and self-care are included in the therapeutic mandate and emergency plans for professionals in certain occupations, especially for those practising palliative/ end of life care.

This topic is indeed a dynamic and vast one and has various layers to decipher and interpret, much like other topics related to psychology. For anyone who has a deeper interest, a more extensive study to penetrate the same and unravel the nuances of human behaviour would render fresh perspectives and mind opening facts!