Guest Blog by Rachel Chan Mazariegos
“Compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.” - Dalai Lama
Though many of us have heard about compassion, some of us may struggle to fully understand what compassion truly is. Compassion refers to much more than empathising with one’s situation and recognising struggles or pain. Compassion is also about taking action to help or alleviate the suffering of others. Many of us will have had experiences with compassion - either through being compassionate towards those around us or by being on the receiving end of a compassionate stranger, friend, or family member. Though being compassionate can most certainly have a positive impact on the people we help, it can also have a direct personal negative impact too. To the surprise of many, prolonged acts of compassion can lead to chronic stress, impacting health, well-being, and job performance (Burnett, Sheard, and Thompson, 2019). A phenomenon commonly referred to as “compassion fatigue”. This is not to say that we should not be compassionate, but that we should be aware of the potential adverse effects that may arise from immersing ourselves deep in dutiful acts of compassion. We must be careful not to dive too deeply into the compassion pool, as we may run the risk of not being able to come up for air.
What is compassion fatigue?
Think of it as empathy and emotional burnout. Compassion fatigue often happens when you have taken on a large emotional load off others and you are not able to recharge and rejuvenate yourself. People experiencing compassion fatigue often experience symptoms such as feeling overwhelmed by the suffering of others, isolating themselves or spending long periods alone, increased feelings of hopelessness, suppressing or bottling up emotions, and difficulties sleeping. What can be even more daunting is that many experiencing compassion fatigue are in denial of their struggle, leaving them to suffer alone and not seek external help or support.
What to look out for…
- Physical exhaustion
- Emotional overload
- Social isolation
- Reduction in sense of work/personal accomplishment
Who is most vulnerable to compassion fatigue?
Typically, compassion fatigue is greatly noted in those who engage in care work which directly places them in a position of taking on the emotional burden of others as well as duties that lead to burnout. Compassion fatigue has been shown to impact between 40-75% of health-care professionals. Many of these professionals can experience ‘secondary traumatic stress’ which is often acquired through exposure to those suffering the primary effects of trauma (Baird and Kracen, 2006). However, it is important to remember that this is not just something allied health and health care workers may struggle with, many of us are currently struggling to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 and Compassion Fatigue
The uncertainty of COVID-19, the disruption to regular routine, and the demands of accommodating to a new normal are factors that can trigger the onset of compassion fatigue. In addition, many of us are experiencing or know someone who is struggling with the indirect impacts of Covid-19. This can be aspects such as job loss, financial constraints, caring for an ill family member or just being isolated and shielding from others. Taken on this added burden on top of our day-to-day life worries can be daunting. Many of us are struggling as it is with our own stressors, let alone finding the compassion for the struggles of others. Are you often missing deadlines, experiencing a shorter fuse, or preoccupied with keeping up to date on COVID-19 infection rates and mortality statistics? If your answer is yes, you may be experiencing COVID-19 compassion fatigue.
We are currently faced with constant changes being made to society, such as diminished face-to-face social interactions and strict regulations that governs when and how we can interact in public. Additionally, the worry of contracting the virus and taking preventative measures can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. In these unprecedented times, many are struggling to adjust to these frequent changes. Moreover, the stress of coming up with ways to maintain structure and security during a time of instability and unpredictability can lead to adverse effects such as burnout, dissatisfaction, economic worry, and feelings of hopelessness - for example.
What can be done to best manage, and ultimately mitigate, compassion fatigue?
Do not fret! Compassion fatigue is not terminal and can be treated. Awareness is the first step to tackling compassion fatigue. Enhance your awareness through educating yourself on what compassion fatigue is and which symptoms to look out for. Here are some examples of how to tackle compassion fatigue:
- Take note of how you are feeling after a long day of commitments by reflecting on how each task affected your mood through journaling or mindfulness.
- Find someone to confide in (e.g., a trusted friend or a mental health professional) or someone who is in a similar position as you.
- Try to limit news intake and time spent on social media as this often can add to feelings of hopelessness and overwhelm.
- Understand the pain you are feeling is common.
- Engage in regular physical and exercise and maintain a healthy diet.
- Ensure you are getting enough sleep.
- Take a break and spend time relaxing – away from any distractions or commitments.
- Make sure to engage in activities that make you happy and act as outlets to your stress and anxieties (hobbies such as hiking, painting, reading, etc.).
- Establish personal boundaries, i.e., what works for you and what does not.
- Frequently engage in self-care rituals or establish a self-care routine that you should not deviate from.
Whether you are a parent, a carer or just a compassionate friend, be sure to look out for signs of compassion fatigue. Don’t be afraid to reach out for that very same help and compassion you give others. After all, how can we give others the support and care they need when we forget to seek it ourselves.
Rachel Chan Mazariegos is an accredited CBT practitioner at OT&P Healthcare in Hong Kong, where she helps children with depression, anxiety or behavioural issues.
Rachel is a graduate of Neuropsychology and Psychology with honours from the UK. She is a registered Educational, Attainment and Ability test user with the British Psychological Society. She is one of only two practitioners in Asia that is a Diplomate member of the American Board of School Neuropsychology whereby she specialises in providing Neuropsychological assessment on school-aged children. You can find more about Rachel and her work on her website at www.mindofmaz.com