As a therapist there have been several times in my career when I have felt the classic symptoms of what is known as compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder.
Compassion fatigue is the gradual decrease in compassion one feels for others over time. It is common not only in people who have been affected by trauma, but also in those who work directly with people who have been affected by trauma including those working in helping professions such as doctors, nurses, counselors, and welfare workers. Compassion fatigue is also common amongst lawyers and there is growing concern that the general population is often subjected to compassion fatigue due to the media’s constant coverage of disasters, violence and suffering.
Compassion fatigue can also been seen in charitable given. Such as if there is a major earth quake today the number of people giving charity may decrease as people grow frustrated with the way donations are handled or with the sheer size of the tragedy.
Signs and symptoms
People suffering from compassion fatigue often feel hopeless, anhedonia (have a decrease in experiencing pleasure), negative attitude, and ongoing stress and anxiety. In some cases compassion fatigue can be so bad that it’s effects can be similar to post traumatic stress disorder, which is why it’s often called secondary traumatic stress disorder: the person experiencing secondary traumatic stress disorder may experience fear, anxiety, nightmares and avoidant behaviors after hearing about a traumatic event from a client/patient as if he or she had experienced the event themselves.
The person experiencing compassion fatigue can show decrease in productivity, self-esteem, feelings of incompetence, self-doubt, difficulty focusing and other signs that often resemble depression. These can effect both the persons personal and professional life.
Usually I feel compassion fatigue after many months of intense, often frustrating therapeutic work, no vacation, and little to no outlet to express my feelings and thoughts about my work or even about my personal life. What happens is that I find myself becoming easily irritated, frustrated and aggravated. I tend to have less energy and patience overall, especially when it comes to dealing with difficult clients. All of this makes it hard to really be present during sessions and when I get home I find myself wanting to be left alone with my pessimistic thoughts about myself, my work and the world at large.
A good therapist recognizes these signs and symptoms and knows when to take a break before compassion fatigue starts to impact them, their clients and those around them negatively. It is important for all of us to recognize when we are suffering from compassion fatigue so that we can start taking care of our self. Taking a break, a vacation, talking to someone or just disconnecting from the world for a while may be needed (i.e. if someone is suffering secondary traumatic stress disorder after watching hours and hours of footage of a terrorist tragedy on CNN).
We must all learn when we need to take a break and how to practice self-care, a discussion for another post. As for me, I’m taking on a lighter case load which is typical for me during the summer, and I am also taking a vacation in July as well as trying to get back to some of the things that make me feel at peace with myself such as reading, writing and drawing. I know that once I have taken care of myself, I will be better capable of helping others learn to also take care of themselves.