Helping others who are dealing with trauma can be highly satisfying and rewarding. But it can also take a toll on caregivers - particularly if they have similar issues of their own. You may find yourself comforting a bereaved spouse while you're trying to cope with fears about your spouse's safety. You may work hard getting help and assistance for other people while ignoring your own needs. Over time, the stress of helping others can cause symptoms - anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability - that interfere with everyday life. This response is often referred to as "compassion fatigue" or "secondary traumatic stress."
Left untreated, compassion fatigue can lead to burnout and other conditions that may not go away on their own. If you work with victims of trauma, you can take steps to recognize, limit, and treat these effects.
Who is at risk for compassion fatigue?
Clinicians and volunteers who help others are often extremely empathic people. Ombudsmen, Family Readiness Group (FRG) leaders, family programs staff, chaplains, Casualty Assistance Officers, and others are often so generous and caring that they may heighten their vulnerability to compassion fatigue. People may be especially vulnerable if they have experienced unresolved trauma in their own lives or are going through an event at the same time as the people they are treating.
Not everyone who helps others deal with trauma develops compassion fatigue, and signs of stress don't necessarily point to compassion fatigue. They may simply be signals that you are tired or need a break.
Signs of compassion fatigue
Compassion fatigue can happen slowly over time, or it can come on suddenly. The signs are similar to the signs of post-traumatic stress, but can vary greatly among individuals:
- Nervousness and anxiety. You may feel fearful about going out or be hyper-vigilant about your own and your family's safety.
- Anger and irritability. Do you find yourself arguing with relatives, friends, or co-workers or feeling angry with specific people or groups?
- Mood swings. Having compassion fatigue can make it difficult for you to control your emotions. You may feel fine one minute and then find yourself suddenly crying or feeling very anxious.
- Difficulty concentrating. Maintaining focus or making even simple decisions may be signs of compassion fatigue. You may forget parts of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth.
- Changes in appetite, sleep, or other habits. You may be eating more or less than usual, or may be sleeping too much or not enough. You may also withdraw from others by becoming emotionally distant and detached.
- Physical changes. People suffering from compassion fatigue may experience headaches, stomachaches, dizziness, heart palpitations, or shortness of breath. You may notice flu-like or cold symptoms. (If you do have any of these physical changes, see your health care provider to rule out a medical ailment.)
- Depression. Feeling sadness and grief, lowered self-esteem, or a loss of interest in ordinary activities, memory difficulties, extreme fatigue, or frequent crying episodes are all also possible signs of compassion fatigue. (If you have suicidal thoughts, get help right away. The Military Crisis Line, at 1-800-273-8255, can tell you about resources in your community.)
Coping and finding help
Untreated compassion fatigue can impair your performance at work or as a volunteer, so it's important to get help promptly if you feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities. Be aware that help is available for the helper and that you are as important as the people you are helping:
- Talk with someone you trust. Just voicing your feelings and fears can help you feel more in control and less alone, and it can be a reality check. A supervisor, mentor or trusted colleague can remind you of what's typical and can help you anticipate challenges that may lie ahead.
- Participate in debriefing sessions for people in your line of work. Having a safe place to share your feelings with other professionals can help to normalize them.
- Take care of yourself. Eat well-balanced meals and get enough sleep. Exercise, even if you only take a few minutes for a short walk. Keep a bottle of water with you - it's easy to get dehydrated when you are under stress. Practice deep breathing. Limit your exposure to news reports. Avoid using alcohol or non-prescription drugs to help you manage your emotions.
- Make your workplace comfortable and soothing. Make sure your chair is comfortable and that you have some favorite photos to look at. A plant can also help make your work surroundings more soothing.
- Give yourself time. Compassion fatigue isn't a sign of weakness. Be patient with yourself and ask others to be patient with you. Telling people how they can help you will make you feel useful and help you get the support you need.
- Know your own limits. You may need to stop or change your assignment, even if it's only temporarily. You won't be as effective if you're exhausted or know you can't help a client with a specific issue.
- Focus on the powerful impact you're having on the people you help. You are giving the gift of yourself and your experience and training. Take time for a well-deserved break. When you return, you may be better able to help others because you have a refreshed attitude, more energy, and a different perspective.
The stress of helping others recover from traumatic experiences goes hand-in-hand with the rewards. If you ever feel overwhelmed, talk with a professional who can suggest ways to help others without neglecting your own needs. You can talk with a health care professional or get in touch with a non-medical counselor through Military OneSource at 800-342-9647. You can also access non-medical counseling services through the Military and Family Life Counselor (MFLC) program. More information is available at your installation Family Support Center.