In the time of COVID, here’s what you need to know about compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue, often described as ‘negative cost of caring’, is the emotional and physical exhaustion experienced due to witnessing prolonged trauma or working with victims of trauma and suffering.
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Compassion fatigue, often described as ‘negative cost of caring’, is the emotional and physical exhaustion experienced due to witnessing prolonged trauma or working with victims of trauma and suffering.

Studied by the field of traumatology, it has been argued throughout history that compassion fatigue should instead be called ‘empathy fatigue’.

Empathy refers to the ability to feel what others are feeling whereas compassion is a feeling of love and care which can coexist with detachment. It’s argued that it’s the feeling of empathy and not compassion that burdens one with negative emotions and leaves them feeling like a ‘secondary survivor’.

Who is at risk?

Compassion fatigue, also referred to as ‘vicarious trauma’ or ‘secondary traumatic stress’, is common in people working in fields that expose them to various kinds of physical and emotional suffering. Constant empathy and compassion is demanded of nurses, doctors, therapists, lawyers or NGO workers, and they often develop compassion fatigue.

Working with trauma patients, whether humans or animals, exposes them to their suffering, induces stress and often leads to burnout. Engaging with others trauma in the healing capacity can lead to intense emotional baggage and increase the risk of developing compassion fatigue.

Compassion Fatigue

COVID-19 further contributed to compassion fatigue not just among health workers but also common people.

Witnessing prolonged suffering and death of those around us took an emotional toll on each and every person. The emotional residue of regularly getting to know about others sorrow and suffering left many of us feeling empty or burnt out.

Constantly being reminded of others’ misery through social media and news made it impossible for many to distance themselves from what is happening. Healthcare workers were overburdened during this time, which further aggravated their physical and emotional tedium.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue

People suffering from compassion fatigue often constantly feel hopeless, powerless, and overwhelmed. Anger and irritability become outlets for this state of intense negative emotions. Feeling distant, burnt out, empty and having a reduced amount of empathy are also common symptoms of compassion fatigue.

People also experience reduced efficiency, guilt, and frustration. Some physical symptoms include lack of sound sleep, dizziness, nausea and headache. People often take refuge in poor coping mechanisms like substance use, isolation, overeating, or not eating at all etc.

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How to cope with compassion fatigue?

More often than not, for the lack of awareness, people do not realise that what they are experiencing is compassion fatigue. So the first and foremost thing is to educate ourselves and reduce the stigma around mental health. It’s rightly said that one cannot pour from an empty cup. Therefore, it’s crucial that people seek help for their mental wellbeing and do not sideline themselves while taking care of others.

Compassion fatigue can be dealt with by being more focused when it comes to emotional and physical self-care. Eating healthy, exercising, venting to trusted friends or family, taking a break when needed and maintaining a good work-life balance go a long way.

It’s also helpful to engage in hobbies, pick up new ones, and set realistic day-to-day goals. We must honour our emotional needs, set healthy inter personal boundaries and seek therapy when required. Lastly, it is important to be kind to ourselves and let that kindness fill the world.

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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