It can creep up on you; it certainly crept up on me. I didn’t even know it was there until someone brought it to my attention. I work as a volunteer peer support group coordinator. Once a week I fill out the necessary paper work, open up the group and use my training to guide members through the two hour process. At the end all together we say the words so common to this kind of situation.
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I always say the words loud to keep everyone else in time with each other and I truly believe them as I say them.
I could have used some serenity a few months ago. I was finding that every week I was becoming increasingly more tired. I was having feelings of helplessness as I went over in my mind some of the stories that members had told me; running on empty and frequently having flash back to the moments when I felt their pain as if it were my own. I was distant from the individual requests that come at the end of every session; this person wants to sign up for this and that person wants a number for that. It’s important work and I’m happy to do it but sometimes I would walk home feeling like I’d been in a coma for two hours. The next session would roll around quickly and the cycle repeated itself “Grant me the serenity” etc; and again the next week. I felt agitated and like I was just going through the motions. I felt like I needed a break; thinking maybe I should quit. I wanted to get away from it although I’d just come back from a break.
Then a colleague mentioned something to me that felt like a slap in the face, but a positive kind of slap, if there is such a thing. “Maybe it’s like an emotional tiredness?”
Suddenly everything fell into place. This is compassion fatigue. I am experiencing compassion fatigue; the arch nemesis of everyone who is engaged in a helping situation.
It can also be referred to as a kind of secondary post traumatic stress brought on by exposure to the traumatic material that people in helping positions can be exposed to. The symptoms of compassion fatigue are varied and include:
dissociation, reduced feelings of empathy or depersonalisation
anxiety, anger or depression
dizziness, nausea, fainting spells,
flashbacks and/or avoidance of reminders of the trauma
emotional exhaustion and poor work life balance
feeling a sense of dread when taking care of someone and then feeling guilty for feeling that way.
It is important to be aware of compassion fatigue if you are engaged in any kind of helping. This includes everything from being a doctor or nurse, to being a carer, a school teacher, counsellor, a volunteer or even someone who pops round to see a struggling neighbour or family member to help them out.
Empathising is hard work, compassion can be strenuous and caring for others is exhausting at times.
So what to do about it? How do we combat compassion fatigue? Here are some things that I tried out as they were suggested to me:
Recognising the signs is the first step towards prevention and management. Notice the way you are feeling, don’t push those feelings to the back of your mind and think ‘I’m too busy’ or it’s a phase. Recognise these feelings and work with them. This for me was the biggest relief. Once I realised what I was experiencing and admitted to myself I was having a problem, it felt much more manageable.
It’s okay to say no when someone asks something of you. I’m bad at this. I also take on extra responsibility because I think it will make me more valuable as a person. This is unhealthy behaviour and thinking in one swift motion. So I looked at what I was doing and cut down my boundaries to the two hour peer support group and the writing group that I run. After that, I am no longer available. I refer you to my many competent colleagues.
3. Enacting a Manageable and Sustainable SelfCare Routine
This can help to restore some work life balance. Things I included when I reshuffled my self-care routine to help me combat compassion fatigue were ensuring I got enough sleep, incorporating an element of exercise (I chose walking and some simple yoga poses) and cultivating some outside of work social activities. Although these things may seem like no-brainers, people who help routinely put other’s needs before their own. Trying to include these things in my day to day life helps to make sure I make time for myself.
4. Use Some Positive Coping Strategies
Let’s be honest we’ve all done it at some point. Had a stressful day so it seems justified having a large glass of wine or maybe three. Eaten our body weight in chocolate because it makes us feel better (guilty as charged). Perhaps we’ve taken drugs or acted out within our relationships, taking out our frustrations on others. These are not positive coping strategies. When you get home after a stress-tastic day, have a warm bath with bubbles and listen to your favourite music. Call up a friend and talk, or meet up for a cup of tea. If you feel over whelmed throughout the day, shut yourself in a cupboard, close your eyes and take five slow and deep breaths. Meditation, yoga, tai-chi, mindfulness, exercise and regular deep breathing are also things you could try. All these things are positive coping strategies and they are hangover, come down and guilt free.
5. Ask For Help
Depending on your situation this could be from a number of different places. It could mean talking to your supervisor about how you are feeling, talking to peers, asking family to share the load or contacting a professional service such as a mental health charity or a counsellor. I began attending a different peer support group where I get to talk as a member instead of running the show, the experience was liberating and it reminded me how good peer support can be if you engage. I fell in love with it all over again.
The saying that you can’t pour from an empty cup is true. If you don’t care for yourself then you can’t care for others effectively and that would be a shame. As caring professionals/people we get up close and personal with other peoples trauma and although at times it’s difficult, the empathy and compassion that we bring to the table changes lives. Providing someone in need with that moment of feeling like they’ve really been listened to, like they really matter, or that they are in safe hands is so important. Personally I can’t imagine what would have become of me if that one helping person hadn’t reached out to me. Now I have picked up the baton in order to follow in so many great footsteps to be one of life’s’ helpers; it is my duty to also take care of myself.
"Healing is an inside job; we have to take action to help ourselves begin to heal, it has to start with us."
Sophia Fedorowicz is a Psychology and Counselling undergraduate and blogger from Stoke-on- Trent. She volunteers with a local mental health charity that provides peer support, workshops and one-to- one talking therapies. Through this work she have developed an understanding of the power of a good support network and seeks to promote connections to improve mental health both locally and nationally, believing we are stronger together.
Find Sophia on twitter at @FedorowiczS.
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