We’ve all had those days when we feel physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Might have been a tough day at work. Could have involved a family member’s healthcare crisis. Sometimes, it’s just one of those days when the kids found and irritated your last nerve. Usually, a good night’s sleep puts us back on the path to feeling good.
When we feel that way day after day, we’ll say we’ve been feeling “burned out.” If it’s a chronic issue, we may look for ways to change our lifestyle, such as finding a less-stressful job. In recent years, it seems people are more burned out than usual, but what has many of them feeling exhausted may be something different. Those people — and maybe even you — may be experiencing what’s known as compassion fatigue.
Burnout is the result of stress in our everyday lives, occurring when we feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet the demands placed on us. Compassion fatigue is something different. It’s the result of overexposure of tragic news stories and images, along with so many appeals for assistance. As we become emotionally burdened by so many bad things happening to other people, we begin to slip into indifference and apathy, doing our best to ignore what’s happening because we don’t believe we can take any more bad news.
Compassion fatigue can affect everyone, but it’s especially common among people who work in roles in which they’re helping others. From first responders, to nurses and other medical personnel, to faith leaders, to charitable organizations, the constant exposure to horrible situations begins to make us less empathetic than we want to be.
There are many symptoms of compassion fatigue and it affects people in different ways. Emotional reactions often include anxiety, guilt, anger, and a sense of powerlessness. Our brains may find it harder to concentrate and come up with the solutions we need to perform our work. We may find ourselves withdrawing from other people and responding to them with mistrust and anger. People who are normally upbeat may become irritable and moody, approaching daily activities with a negative attitude, and often turning to addictive substances in desperate attempts to feel better. They feel exhausted yet find satisfying sleep unattainable.
If you believe compassion fatigue may be affecting you, there are several steps you can take to bring yourself back to where you want to be. For starters, it’s okay to press pause and slow the cadence of your daily life. Create space and time where you can reflect on what you’re doing, and help yourself develop boundaries around what you can and cannot control. Remind yourself why you’ve chosen to do what you do, and if you’re not sure you can keep doing it, formulate a plan B.
Protect your physical, mental, and emotional health by scheduling breaks, journaling by hand, using your PTO, practicing gratitude, and simplifying your life. Make time for yourself and the things you still enjoy. If your work is the source of your compassion fatigue, talk with your supervisor about ways you might change your role to make it less overwhelming, even if only for a short time.
If you don’t feel you can overcome compassion fatigue on your own, reach out to others who can help — whether that’s a group of your peers or spending time with a professional counselor. The Care to Change team understands compassion fatigue (you probably won’t be surprised to learn that it affects therapists, too!) and can help you explore strategies for restoring the sense of compassion that’s still within you. Why not set a time today? Scheduling an appointment is as easy as emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or clicking here.
Listen to podcasts on this very topic, too!