University of Kansas
Working in the helping field has its many joys and privileges. Seeing a child, whose self esteem is at the bottom, light up when he/she accomplishes a new task, see the growth an alcohol and drug addict has made in treatment, or to see the family, that when they entered the door of your office, was on the verge of separation, but now are communicating and working out their own needs with little assistance from you, their therapist, is some of the most rewarding moments one can experience. However, to believe that life is all about these positive moments and that the battles you join in with others to overcome will not have an impact on you as a person, is wishful thinking at best. Undoubtedly, the day will come when we experience some form negative impact on our own mental health. That is, unless, proper self-care is practiced on an ongoing basis. Those in the helping field are at a great risk of what has been termed “compassion fatigue.” On a continuum with burnout, compassion fatigue is a step over and both “burnout and compassion fatigue puts both the health care workers and their patients at risk” (Portnoy, 2011, p. 47). What follows is an outline of what compassion fatigue is, along with common signs, symptoms and risk factors. Following that is a self-assessment of personal risk factors and a self-care plan designed to assist in assuring that the risk of compassion fatigue is reduced in my professional career. Understanding Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue falls on a continuum of experiences associated with burnout and "secondary traumatization"(Figley, 1995). Unfortunately, many people make the assumption that they are the same thing. However burnout, secondary trauma, and compassion fatigue are not exactly the same things. And those that seek to understand the risks associated with each will learn that there are differences. When an individual is finding dissatisfaction with their work environment and the stresses of the work he/she does, this is considered burnout. Secondary trauma is what occurs when we react to the situations of those that we are helping such as when I become distressed over the abuse of a child patient that I am working with. It is when we see the signs and symptoms of both burnout and secondary trauma that a person is experiencing compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue will affect a person in the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, spiritual, and somatic domains of life (Portnoy, 2011, p. 48). Portnoy (2011) reports the following signs and symptoms as related to compassion fatigue: Cognitive: Lowered concentration, apathy, rigidity, disorientation, minimization, preoccupation with trauma Emotional: Powerlessness, anxiety, guilt, anger, numbness, fear, helplessness, sadness, depression, depleted, shock, blunted or enhanced affect. Experiencing troubling dreams similar to a patient’s dream. Suddenly and involuntarily recalling a frightening experience while working with a patient or family Behavioral: Irritable, withdrawn, moody, poor sleep, nightmares, appetite change, hyper-vigilance, isolating Spiritual: Questioning life’s meaning, pervasive hopelessness, loss of purpose, questioning of religious beliefs, loss of faith/skepticism Somatic: Sweating, rapid heartbeat, breathing difficulty, aches and pains, dizziness, impaired immune system, headaches, difficulty falling or staying asleep
For those serving in the helping profession, it is important to be aware of the symptoms listed above. Understanding the symptoms allows us to self-monitor our personal functioning as a member of the helping profession. Additionally, it will allow us to develop interventions that will address any symptoms that present in one’s life. Preventing Compassion Burnout
For an individual to protect himself from compassion fatigue, it is crucial that he keeps his life in balance. This can...