2dt9cax“Some days there won’t be a song in your heart. Sing anyway.” ~ Emory Austin.

Anyone who has ever cared for another during an illness, following a death, during a mental illness, drug addiction, or any of the many loss scenarios that exist understand that compassion will involve fatigue and stress.Caretaking involves energy of the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual kind. It is hard to care for another. It is also rewarding and meaningful. But, it is difficult and the caregiver must take care as well.

Compassion fatigue is also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS). It used to be referred to as caregiver burnout. Caregiving is an individual activity when one cares for a child, spouse, loved one, or close friend. Caregiving extends into the ranks of professionals who show up every day to take care of you and those you care about.

Sometimes I hear caustic comments based largely on ignorance such as, “Well, doctors are trained to put up with that stress.” Or “Psychologists are trained to put up with client’s anger and rage.” Or “Nurses shouldn’t have become nurses if they can’t handle people yelling at them.”

My response is a silent, “Wow.” People haven’t a clue.

Professionals enter the caregiving professions because they care about people, human suffering, and because they wish to make a difference. We are trained to understand all manner of things related to suffering, but no one is “trained” to put up with rudeness, rage, excessive anger, and hostility. Professionals are people first and professionals second.

Physicians, first responders, police officers, fire fighters, paramedics, nurses, social workers, psychologists and counselors, nurse aids, attorneys, and all the long list of helpers out there do what they do because they have a heart.

For the amount of education required it would have been more lucrative to be a house painter, plumber, or electrician. Many do not realize what it takes to enter the helping professions in terms of education, money, student loans, student debt, and years of on the job training, not to mention licensing and license renewal costs.

Compassion fatigue can also apply to the general public who is bombarded nightly on television and anytime on the Internet with disturbing stories about tragedies and suffering throughout the world. Over exposure to suffering creates secondary traumatic stress. For those with preexisting mental health problems it makes problems worse. Anxiety sufferers will feel more anxious. Depression sufferers will feel more depressed. Feelings of powerlessness start to pervade our personal and geographic landscape. People begin taking “it out” on one another.

Here are the signs of secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue:

  •  Feelings of hopelessness
  • A decrease in pleasurable activities
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Negative or pessimistic attitude
  • Being quick to anger
  • Reduced productivity
  • Difficulties with focus and concentration
  • Self doubt
  • Feelings of inadequacy and incompetence
  • Taking on symptoms of those you are caring for
  • Emotional detachment
  • Self-Medication
  • Isolation from Others
  • Work demands encroach on personal life
  • Somatic complaints
  • Blaming others
  • Depression
  • Fatigue

Treatment for the caregiver is just as important as what you do for others. There are many ways to get help. First it is important to understand that it is easy to get swallowed up by other peoples problems and suffering. It is important to come up with an intervention plan for yourself.

We will look at how to intervene in the next blog.

Take care and be well.

Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo

Contents for this blog are from the upcoming book, Understanding Loss and Grief, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in the fall 2013. By Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo