“We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer. We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.” – Dr. Charles Figley, 1995
Do You Suffer From Compassion Fatigue?
I admit it–at times I do. I’m a teacher and hear a lot of extremely sad stories pertaining to the most vulnerable among us–children. It’s difficult to leave these stories at school. They follow me; they haunt my dreams and invade my thoughts. They suddenly poke at me while I’m cooking dinner, playing with my dogs, or out with friends. Over the years, I’ve learned to protect myself from their jabs. I’ve surrounded myself with invisible armor that deflects disturbing thoughts and images. Once in while, however, an errant spear rips through and pierces my heart.
Ways To Cope With Compassion Fatigue
How do caregivers such as nurses, hospice workers, death care professionals, social workers, therapists, EMTs, police, firemen, and teachers stave off burn out and remain mentally and physically healthy?
They exercise self-care. In fact, they make it a priority. If they empty out, they need to fill up. They consciously invest in themselves and focus on their own needs. Here are some activities that will replenish your tank:
Make time for your health. Exercise regularly whether it be yoga or boxing, or invest in a massage or meditation class.
Nourish Your Body
Don’t skimp on a healthy meal. It might be easier to run through the drive-thru after a particularly emotional day, but take time to nourish your body with nutritious, natural foods accompanied by plenty of water. The glass of wine or two or three may be tempting, but leave it for a social setting over the weekend.
Establish boundaries. That means learning to say “no”. As caretakers, we want to say yes to everything. It’s our way of receiving validation. That’s part of the reason we are in helping professions–we draw value from helping others. It feels uncomfortable when we first say no to people. They may act surprised and attempt to guilt us into saying yes. Don’t give in. Before long, our friends and family will adapt to the new boundaries, and we will have more energy and feel more respected.
Surround Yourself with Positive People
Surround yourself with people who sincerely care about you. There are people who are energy vampires. You know the ones–they come to you to fix their problems. They are poor listeners and self-involved. The relationship is generally one-sided. This is the last thing a caregiver needs after serving others all day.
Be mindful. Practice staying in the moment and out of your head. We tend to ruminate about the past and fret the future. Learn and practice healthy communication skills. You will become less reactive and unlikely to engage in petty conflicts which drain much needed energy. As a helper, it is crucial to reserve your energy for life’s important challenges.
Practice gratitude. When we think about the suffering of others, we remember the blessings in our own lives. Focus on the little things that bring you joy–a warm cup of coffee, the smell of spring in the air, a hug from a loved one.
Suggested Read: Finding Gratitude In Life’s Ordinary Moments
Organization is Key
Organize your life so that it is balanced. After work, engage in activities that light you up. Explore your passions and spend time with people who matter most. More importantly, laugh. These occupations are serious enough, so a sense of humor is essential. We need to keep things light and find humor in life. Besides, laughing is an excellent stress reliever.
Don’t Ignore Self-Care
If we ignore self-care, we risk a host of health and mental problems. We may isolate from others, repress our emotions, take out frustrations on family members, resent those whom we are helping, or even turn to substances to numb our pain. It’s not uncommon for stress to manifest as physical disorders, such as gastrointestinal issues, tension headaches, neck and back pain, frequent colds, and general fatigue. We may become easily distracted; ignore responsibilities like paying bills; engage in compulsive behaviors, including gambling or overeating; or become apathetic and no longer find enjoyment in life.
Suggested Read: Is Self-Care Selfish Or Selfless?
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