COMPASSION FATIGUE
Dee Chadwick
06 Dec 2020
I am sure that this is something I have at present. Something that has built up over the years and I have to say it is something that I am not proud of. Is it just me – or do you feel that your supply of compassion has run out, or maybe simply been switched off?

THE ROOTS OF MY COMPASSION

I was brought up in the post-war years to be a caring person, whilst simultaneously learning to stand up for my beliefs and to face things with a healthy dose of resilience. I cared for people around me, those I would never meet; I cared for animals and their welfare; I cared for the environment around me, though in those days I feel that little mention was made of the larger scale environment and the whole of planet earth.  As an only child, with television deemed suitable for a child being very limited and only on two channels, I would spend hours sewing and making things. I would make Christmas decorations out of pieces of wood that I foraged – adding a candle, cones, greenery etc. The rest of the year I would sew things such as shoe polishers, and make jams and chutneys using jars that I had collected from the estate on which I lived, along with scraps of fabric that I used for my sewing tasks. I would then have a stall to sell my wares with the money being sent to OXFAM. Not only was I helping, caring, but I was also learning new skills and becoming aware that I could keep myself well occupied. Another lesson well learnt at an early age.

My compassion for this poor old planet of ours clicked in later at university when I studied climate, ecosystems and changing landscapes. Though sadly, the rate of change has increased over more recent years bringing the concept of global warming to the front of more agendas. This is one aspect of my compassion that isn’t struggling from fatigue as I see the glaciers, the polar ice fields melting at an ever increasing rate. Throw into the scenario the loss of species through either changing climate, loss of habitat or trophy killing by man and I would dearly love to be able to wrap my arms round our planet in an effort to comfort it and offer succour and healing. I imagined mother earth sighing a huge sigh of relief during our first lockdown. Relief that not so many emissions were being pumped into the atmosphere – the blanket that protects her. Sadly, a more sustained period of recovery which is worldwide is needed to reverse the damage that we have caused. 

DO YOU QUALIFY YOUR COMPASSION?

I am aware that I do this at present and I don’t like that I do this. I am not sure if it is because there is more around to make demands of my compassion. When I hear the numbers of people in various countries who are sick with or who have died from COVID-19, I find it hard to imagine those numbers, so they remain ‘just’ numbers unless I equate them to something I can visualise – the number of children in a school I may have worked at, the number filling Old Trafford stadium - in the days when we could do such things. Do we qualify our compassion with a but.....as in... but there were more who died last week, but had they all been taking care, but had they had one of those ‘underlying conditions’? It is so much easier to show compassion if we know someone who died, even if this knowing was only via seeing them on television or listening to their music. So, I wonder if it is a sort of protection to prevent us becoming overwhelmed?

I certainly feel compassion for those who have been going above and beyond the call of duty to care for those sick with the virus. I feel for those who have died alone and the loved ones who have been unable to comfort them. However, I am sure that part of my depth of feeling associated with this is because both my Mum and my Dad died alone. This is something that I felt so very guilty about, though in reality it wasn’t that I had ignored them, never visited them; rather, I loved them dearly. To be completely honest, I am sure that, as I live alone, maybe I am applying a bit of compassion for myself here?  The chances are that I will suffer the same fate, though I do divert my thoughts if they stray down this particular path. It’s only part of life after all and most of life and living I do on my own.

24 HOUR NEWS COVERAGE

Back in the days of me doing that sewing as a child, if there was a major disaster, it took some time for it to reach our TV screens and there were only a couple of news programmes each day – a far cry from the many 24 hour news channels that we have now - news channels that seem to have instant cover, repeated and repeated. I wonder if this repetition dulls the feelings? Certainly, I feel that some of the interviews included err on the side of either being not very appropriate by their immediacy, through to accounts given by people who were far from on the spot observers, maybe seeking to be a part of the mass welling up of feelings?

Then there are happenings that simply have no buts attached, they just impact at the very core of our feelings. The initial impact mind blowing as with the South Asian tsunami and New York’s 9-11. The subsequent stories adding to depth of feelings. Moments that shocked and certainly made me feel great sadness for the survivors and the helpers alike. Those feelings were very real, even though I didn’t personally know anyone involved.

What of those many varied charitable appeals, asking for our donations to support their causes? Where would we be without such charities, which in so many cases make up for any alternative lack of provision. The many children’s charities; animal welfare groups; health and medical issues and research charities etc etc. I am aware that they rely on the likes of us for donations to keep up their work, but at present I really feel indifferent to their appeals. Are there too many of such appeals with the charities endeavouring to make up for a drop of funding over the past months? Or is it just that we have had too many demands on our supply of compassion so we look away, or simply don’t take in the suffering portrayed? Maybe we pay more attention if it is a charity which has some particular relevance for us? Or maybe it’s just me who feels this way.

CARERS AND COMPASSION FATIGUE

I include both professional carers and those who care for, usually, relatives. Whether they are paid or not, they must have so much compassion to take on a role that many others see as something that they could never do. Surely, there must be times when they run out of patience, out of compassion especially if supporting someone with a failing body, or a failing mind. Having to carry out what many would consider mundane or unpleasant tasks; reply to repeated questions and have to keep reminding the person/people for whom they are caring just who they are – either the carer or the cared for. Even more poignantly painful if having to remind them that you are their spouse, their child, then to have to do the same again a few breaths later.

STS - COMPASSION FATIGUE

Compassion fatigue, in common with so many problems affecting our minds, is very much on a continuum. At the more extreme end, where it is also recognised as Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), it can become debilitating way beyond an inability to be affected by charity adverts on television. Wikipedia tells us – ‘In one study, 86% of emergency room nurses met the criteria for compassion fatigue. In addition, 34% of hospice nurses in another study met the criteria for secondary traumatic stress/compassion fatigue.’

There is a Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project which states that ‘Providing authentic, sustainable daily self-care can help manage and lessen the disruptive issues associated with compassion fatigue’.  It is also thought that  ‘When we are put in the position of caring for others at an early age, we learn to put the needs of others before our own needs. Additionally, we grow up lacking strong personal boundaries, experience an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and carry the unresolved trauma within.’So above and beyond those self-care strategies, if symptoms become life affecting, I am sure that some time spent with a therapist would be beneficial.

What of those symptoms? They are said to include someone who –

• Blames excessively
• Bottles up emotions
• Isolates from others
• Voices excessive complaints about administrative functions
• Employs substance abuse to self-medicate
• Ignores self-care (i.e., hygiene, appearance)
• Suffers from chronic ailments such as gastrointestinal problems and recurrent colds
• Inability to enjoy once pleasurable activities
• Feels apathetic, sad
• Employs denial as a means of self-preservation
• Experiences recurring nightmares and flashbacks

Management, if working as a carer in such as a residential setting, or nursing staff in a hospital, will need to be aware of such symptoms, especially with the added pressures of COVID. Family and friends of those caring for a relative or friend would also do well to keep a weather eye open for any changes in the carer. Not easy with the isolation of lockdown and tiers leading to added pressure for anyone facing the emotional challenge of being a carer.

If left untreated, it is possible for the carer to be in a poor place emotionally. A place making it hard to care for those who may well be vulnerable or fragile. Carers need to take responsibility for their own emotional, mental, physical well-being ‘If we sense we are suffering from elevated levels of compassion fatigue, chances are excellent that we are.’ This awareness should not be ignored rather than seen as the start of a healing process. The Project points out that ‘Many resources are now available to help us recognize the symptoms and causes of compassion fatigue. Healing begins by employing such practices as regular exercise, healthy eating habits, highly functional relationships, enjoyable social activities, journaling and restful sleep’. Having said that, healthy habits for all of us to adopt to help maintain our emotional well-being at a positive setting.

If you feel that you, or someone that you know may be struggling with Compassion Fatigue, I do recommend that you check out the Project’s web site. If it is something you would like to talk through, do contact me via this web site.

Take care – of yourself as well as others. 

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