What is compassion fatigue and how to address it

The coronavirus pandemic not only challenged the global health system, it brought into sharp focus important environmental issues, too. In fact, studies have found a strong connection between the pandemic and the current state of the environment. While there was a temporary decrease in pollution and the world’s carbon footprint due to lockdowns around the world, there was also a significant increase in medical waste and the use of disinfectants and other harmful chemicals. This amplifies the already existing (and worsening) issue of climate change.

At the heart of this health and environmental issue are the social workers and volunteers, who are continuously giving their best to educate, implement and advocate for human and environmental issues. Eventually, these people become more susceptible to something called compassion fatigue. Perhaps you are too? Read on to find out.

What is compassion fatigue

Also called secondary stress reaction, compassion fatigue is a type of physical, emotional, and psychological stress that stems from frequent contribution and exposure to certain causes, like the environment and social work. It is often interchanged with burnout because of the similar symptoms. Then again, there’s a distinct difference: Burnout reflects an accumulated sense of dissatisfaction, while compassion fatigue involves a more specific experience.

Those who work or volunteer in roles where they are constantly observing and helping with disasters – whether environmental, human or otherwise – are at danger of gradually absorbing the trauma and emotional stresses of the advocacy that you fight for and the people that you help, which can trigger drastic mood changes, emotional detachment, depressive symptoms, lack of productivity, insomnia, and physical exhaustion — all symptoms of compassion fatigue.

How to address compassion fatigue

These symptoms may be concerning and frightening, but there are steps you can take to fight them.

Prioritise self-care

By constantly concerning yourself with the needs of others, you may be neglecting your own. Prioritising yourself is neither a selfish act nor a luxury. You’re entitled to make to time to prioritise self-care since it allows you to recharge yourself. Since everyone has a unique self-care routine, just do what feels right for you. It may be in the form of moving your body, eating a nutritious meal, working out the routine you need to take to get a good night’s sleep, committing to mediating, or even taking a ‘life admin’ day, where all you do is get your home/finances/holiday plans in order.

It may also pay off to limit your consumption of daily news. That doesn’t mean you should stop being informed, of course, but it helps to take a day off social media to allow your mind to recuperate.

See a mental health professional

If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, consider seeing a mental health advisor, like a counsellor or therapist – your GP can point you in the right direction. Mental health professionals are trained in helping you process your feelings and unpacking what you are going through.

Traditionally, mental health professionals focused on negative emotions to help you process and get through your situation. Today many adopt a new approach, with general healthcare advisors specialising in mental health, graduating with a foundational background in “positive psychology”. This is an approach that focuses on the “positives” in your life (such as influences or traits) to boost your emotional wellness.

For instance, your therapist may choose to highlight your strengths, like your passion for helping people or your determination to take care of the environment. Focusing on these things allows you to be more compassionate and kinder to yourself, improving your outlook on the things you’ve contributed.

Seek support

Finally, know that you’re never alone in this ongoing struggle with compassion fatigue. That is why it’s a great idea to seek out a support group to help you go through the process together. It might even be more advantageous to you if the group is involved with environmental work experiences as well, allowing you to share a common trait. Thanks to technology, you can perform self-help strategies together, like virtual group exercise, yoga session, or virtual dinners.

Of course, you can also ask for support from your family and friends. By letting them in on your situation, they can extend necessary help, such as visiting you with cooked meals or calling you regularly.

Recognising the signs of compassion fatigue is the first step towards fighting it; the second is to find a solution that can help you get through it. Once you’ve reset your mind and know what needs to be done to prevent it from happening in the future, you can continue your journey to aid both the environment and those in need of your help.

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Jodi Cooper

Jodi Cooper is a freelance writer and writing consultant who enjoys solving Rubix cubes and baking due to her free time. Her dream is to one day start a local book club with her best friend.

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