Submitted by Linda Antoniazzi
I hear stories daily of death, violence and abuse as part of my work and I need to be alert for Compassion Fatigue, which is the feeling of being physically and emotionally exhausted in reaction to being repeatedly exposed to traumatic events. If you treat persons that have been abused or traumatized, your own coping strategies can ultimately become drained. Compassion fatigue can happen to Physicians, Nurses, Firemen, EMS, Police and military staff. It is not about personal failure, it is a normal biological reaction that occurs when your stress response has been at a high level for some time. It is easier to go home at day’s end when your job entails making car parts or selling shoes, but it is not as easy to put work aside when someone, who is still in pain, is relying on you to help them. You may find that you progressively give more and more to those in need, leaving you with less and less for yourself. Those who rise every day in the service of others can find themselves overwhelmed by the naturally occurring stress response. Living with stress for prolonged periods, such as hearing or witnessing traumatic situations, depletes the body’s immune system.
Dr. Hans Seyle’s book The Stress of Life is a good place to start to understand the impact of stressful work on a person. Dr. Seyle describes stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand” and prolonged stress leads to “general adaptation syndrome.” With prolonged stress, the body’s immune system tries to repair the wear and tear in the body, which it does best when the body is at rest. However, when immune stores run out and the body cannot keep up to meet the demands, the immune system starts to break down. Symptoms of prolonged stress can include: a loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, low motivation and initiative, social isolation, irritability, loss of sex drive, sleep and appetite changes, distractibility, anxiety symptoms, impulsive behaviour, low energy, being easily startled, hypertension, digestive problems and other concerns related to the autonomic nervous system. In severe cases, the body itself starts to break down.
People in the helping professions need to learn to take care of themselves first. You cannot save a drowning man, if you do not know how to swim. Therefore, people susceptible to Compassion Fatigue need to learn ways to assure that they nourish themselves first. It is like on an airplane where the flight attendant tells you that you must put on your air mask before attempting to help anyone else. Preventative or reversing steps for Compassion Fatigue can include exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, getting into a daily routine, setting limits for work and making time for socializing. Having a balanced life is imperative. When you help others, it is easy to spend increasing time at work, but at the expense of family and friends, as well as yourself. You will need to find what nurtures your soul and make time for that, whether it be playing guitar, walks by the beach, painting, photography singing, or any type of hobby or creative outlet. Creative outlets for stress help restore the balance between death and creation, between the dark side and the beauty of life. Find ways to rest liked a warm bath or reading an inspirational book.
If you feel distressed, or your mind keeps drifting back to work, or your work days keep getting longer, you likely need to rebalance your life. Much like a misaligned tire, if off balance, you will wear out faster. Compassion Fatigue is more easily repaired when you have control over your schedule, but less easy when your employer is making the increased demands upon you. You may need to seek assistance from co-workers or the union to examine workload issues, or in extreme cases, you may need to reconsider your place of employment