Compassion fatigue is an emotional and a physical state experienced by those who have been caring for one or more individuals for a lengthy time. It certainly refers to a state of tiredness and exhaustion while also pointing to tense feelings and overall distress. Some may refer to it as burnout while others refer to it as a type of traumatic stress.

While some people discount these feelings of compassion fatigue and their physical effects on the body, those who have experienced these feelings know just how much they can translate into real symptoms, such as insomnia, decreased mental clarity and negative arousal of the nervous system. In addition, many individuals note a variety of emotional problems that keep them from feeling like themselves. For example, they may no longer feel energized to work, and their view of their work and even of the entire world may shift dramatically. These individuals may also find themselves slipping into a state of depression or anger and may feel that life has lost its meaning.

Clearly, compassion fatigue has serious consequences, and you must guard against it in your daily work. As a health care provider, you are particularly at risk for this type of long-term stress. Piles of paperwork, busy shifts that never seem to end, pressure from management and limited amounts of time to eat and sleep between shifts can lead to exhaustion. You may feel yourself tempted to depersonalize your patients, treating them merely as diagnoses rather than as hurting individuals. While the emotional wall may work for a while, it can eventually lead to a sense of cynicism in your daily work.

Keep in mind that compassion fatigue does not happen overnight. Instead, it gradually builds within you until you feel completely exhausted both mentally and physically. For some, it can take several weeks as they experience high levels of stress in caring for patients. For others, it could take years of low-level stress before any residual effects are noted. The longer you spend providing compassionate care to your patients, the more your ability to care from your heart will decrease. Just like any skill, overuse can lead to weakening.

If you believe that you are suffering from compassion fatigue or if you see yourself heading down the road toward this type of long-term emotional blunting, there are some things you can do to help yourself recover or to prevent further stress, exhaustion and burnout from occurring.

Regular self-care is one of the most important things you can do, but it should not take a one-size-fits-all approach. You may find that a weekly massage helps you let go of stress, or you may find that curling up with a book or taking a long walk works far better. Some other important steps could include the following:

  • -Regularly speaking with a safe person
  • -Focusing on a healthy diet and sleep pattern
  • -Taking some time off for periodic vacations
  • -Developing new hobbies

In some cases, compassion fatigue may run so deep that you can no longer function healthfully on the job. In such a case, you may find it best to look for a new position on a different unit. For example, switching from bedside nursing to a clinic position could help you see your work from a fresh, new perspective.