In my job I hear a lot of stories. I hear stories of enormous tragedy and loss, but also stories of great strength and resilience. I have and always will consider it a great privilege to be witness to these stories and the vulnerability intertwined within the ups and downs of life. Like most helpers and healers, I would consider myself an empathetic person capable of appreciating what it might be like in someone else’s shoes.
It seems empathy is in high demand these days. Helping professionals, healers, or simply those with caring personalities may feel overwhelmed and even exhausted trying to meet this demand. Having a caring heart and a tendency to put others ahead of ourselves makes us especially vulnerable to compassion fatigue. ‘Compassion fatigue’ a term coined by Dr Charles Figley, is a “state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper”. Compassion fatigue occurs hand in hand with vicarious trauma, which is when ‘the helper’ is exposed to the traumatic experience of another and experiences a personal transformation resulting in a multitude of possible symptoms including anxiety, panic, sleep changes, depression, hypervigilance, and social isolation among others.
Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue may lead to feelings of being unsupported and underappreciated. We may also be a tendency to roll up our sleeves and become workaholics- in a search to find control and distractibility when we may feel powerless in other aspects of our lives. We may also find ourselves justifying maladaptive coping mechanisms because of the good and hard work we do. It may be easy to blame our struggles on circumstance and others, but ultimately we need to look within ourselves to find answers and solutions.
Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue can occur among educators at a loss of how to comfort students fearful of tragedy, or healthcare professionals struggling to provide adequate care to desperate patients, or parents trying to nurture their children in a world that can seem so chaotic, or parents trying to nurture their parents, or leaders of faith trying to restore hope in the hopeless, or first responders repeatedly encountering the aftermath of trauma, or the countless unpaid volunteers and nurturers in our communities working hard to uplift others with often little recognition.
I have learned to be aware of my own vulnerabilities to vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue—and it has not always been easy. I have learned it is critical to have what I call “non-negotiables” or ways of coping that help keep me grounded, present, and emotionally resilient. I have learned it is best not to sacrifice these non-negotiables and if I do, it is not only a disservice to myself, but takes away from my loved ones, clients, and yes, ultimately the communities that I serve. I am not overstating my importance, but have simply grown an appreciation and awareness how my energy and actions reverberate to everyone I come in contact with—and it is the same for you.
It is easy to feel hypervigilant about all the woes and fears that may seem so imminent, which makes vigilance about our own well-being so much more important.
Many of us believe that prioritizing our own well-being aligns with selfishness. In my humble opinion, self-care is a matter of self-responsibility and has nothing to do with being selfish. Importantly, self-care and self-responsibility may also mean asking for help when we feel at a loss. We can only give what we have. It is ultimately not sustainable to be so focused on giving and not restoring. So, in the midst of widespread fear, taking inventory of what we need to keep ourselves grounded and creating dialogue is a necessity.
It is easy to feel lost, on edge, and powerless. Our reality is our perception and perception can change. So let’s help ourselves and one another see the light in the darkness. Take care everyone.
Audry Van Houweling, PMHNP-BC, Owner She Soars Psychiatry, LLC.
Sisters & Silverton, Oregon