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On compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma & burnout

Recently, I participated in an amazing training to become a domestic violence advocate for immigrant women in the D.C. area. One area which we focused on was burnout, compassion fatigue, and self-care.

recent article in the NY Times highlighted the sadly common phenomenon of compassion fatigue among not just those of us who work in the social change field, but also the general public — who are increasingly tiring of being deluged by information about war, famine, disaster and violence — while simultaneously feeling powerless to stop these atrocities from happening. But compassion fatigue often hits those in social work and caregiving professions the hardest:

“Those in the so-called helping professions know as much about the limits of empathy as they do about its merits. Studies of oncology nurses, trauma workers and even marriage counselors, among others, have documented a common “compassion fatigue” that seems directly related to the amount of emotion shared. “In particular, listening to people who are suffering and not being able to do enough for them puts a tremendous weight” on caregivers, said Dr. Charles Figley, a psychologist at Tulane University.

Sadly, I’ve felt the effects of compassion fatigue too. After hearing traumatic, difficult stories from the homeless, mentally ill, prisoners, refugees, and domestic violence survivors, it is hard not to feel hopeless. Certainly, the people I’ve spoken to display resilience and strength. At the same time, my own ability to change things sometimes seems hopelessly limited. Compassion fatigue, for me, results in feelings of hopelessness — of not being able to affect any change in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure many of you have felt this way too.

What are some signs/symptoms of compassion fatigue?

  • Increased isolation from others
  • Apathy, sadness, no longer finding activities pleasurable
  • Feels that colleagues and friends simply don’t understand
  • Can’t recover quickly after association with a traumatic event
  • Affected deeply by stress of clients
  • Lost sense of hopefulness and optimism; cynicism and pessimism
  • Difficulty concentrating on anything
  • Mentally and physically tired
  • Nightmares or flashbacks of traumatic event
  • Substance abuse used to mask feelings
  • Compulsive behaviors such as overspending, overeating, gambling, addictions
    (Source: 12)

A similar phenomenon is known as “vicarious traumatization.” By repeatedly hearing stories of clients or learning about threats, harm, destruction, injury, or death that has affected a client or someone close to you can be traumatizing for the caregiver or social worker. There are emotional and even physical indicators of vicarious trauma. Anger, sadness, grief, and depression can be the result. Nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance too. It is a by-product of empathy that we have with our clients or those we are hoping to help.The danger of compassion fatigue & vicarious trauma is not only to one’s individual health and well-being, but also when it results in such intense burn-out, cynicism, and hopelessness that it becomes apathy. It can lead to such intense feelings of powerlessness and apathy about social change that it causes people to drop out of the social justice field altogether. This is burn-out.

Burn-out develops over time, when one starts to believe he/she is not meant for this work, or is being ineffective.In the past, I never thought too deeply about self-care. Me? Needing self-care? I thought I didn’t need it, that I could keep on chugging endlessly. But when you start dealing with particularly heavy topics,everyone needs self-care.  As I increasingly consider the option of a social work career, or at least a career where I am involved with issues such as gender-based violence and human rights violations, I realize that thinking about such difficult issues– and hearing the stories of clients and others who have experienced deep trauma–day in and day out can be tiring and deeply mentally unsettling. After immersion in these topics, I become overwhelmed by learning about the worst faces of humanity.

At the same time, the solution is not to shut away your empathy and become totally detached. I don’t think I ever want to become numb to the plight of those who are suffering. I want to continue empathizing, because it is part of what it means to be human. Still, I realize that this is where self-care comes in. I realize that I need a break to enjoy myself, spend time with friends & family, pursue hobbies such as photography, take care of myself through cooking & yoga & exercise, and take time to be energized. And most importantly, the foundation that helps me keep going is the reminder of all those inspiring folks: grassroots and community leaders, social innovators and entrepreneurs, and thought leaders pioneering new paths to compassion and social change. I remain inspired by those I see around me working endlessly to further human rights and social movements, and this gives me balance to counteract the dark side of humanity that too often shows its face in my work. It gives me hope for the future of our world, and faith that I am doing the right work for the right reasons.

Have you experienced vicarious trauma, burn out, or compassion fatigue? How do you deal with these feelings and keep yourself inspired to continue social justice work?

*Reproduced with the author’s permission. The original post was published on Justice for All by Akhila Kolisetty. Akhila is a recent graduate from Northwestern University, where she majored in Political Science and Economics, and wrote a honors thesis on international justice in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. She also studied abroad for a year at the London School of Economics (LSE). Currently, she works for a civil rights law firm, assisting victims of discrimination in seeking redress. She also volunteers with an NGO that works to expand access to legal services and legal awareness for women and girls in Afghanistan. 

One Response to On compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma & burnout

  1. Lee Koelzer says:

    I’ve been working in the humanitarian sector in Uganda for 9 years. Randomly, I just learned the term ‘Compassion Fatigue” yesterday from a therapist in a meeting with international donors.
    This explains A LOT and it is actually comforting to see that it is common and that people both deal with it, and get through it. I’ve actually been treating mine with a mix of Prozac and Valium, a mix that well over half the long-term aid workers I know use to help function in everyday life.

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