Feeling Stressed? How to Deal with Compassion Fatigue

Last Updated on May 8, 2023

healthcare nurse clinician inside a healthcare facility wearing scrubs and stethoscope with a sad and frustrated emotional face

Among the many sinister side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the emotional toll it’s taking on caregivers is among the most alarming. As a result, many experts are urging nurses and other clinicians to be extra aware of the dangers of compassion fatigue. But how to deal with compassion fatigue and similar risks at a time when you’re busier than ever?

Even during normal times, the “impact of compassion fatigue on nurses can be profound,” write the authors of a study published in OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. It can “be very costly personally and professionally for nurses,” leading to stress-related health symptoms that could lead to bigger issues. Careers are sometimes cut short, and long-term health at risk.

But, serious as it is, who has the spare time to deal with compassion fatigue on top of all the other day-to-day duties you barely have time for? We’ve got good news: Coping — and better yet, preventing — compassion fatigue may be possible with a few simple changes to your day-to-day routine. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few recommended methods.

How to Deal with Compassion Fatigue: 4 Important Steps

Step 1: Understand the symptoms. Compassion fatigue is not a new concept. A term describing the effects of emotional strain on those who care for those people suffering from traumatic injuries or serious illnesses, compassion fatigue has long been identified as a serious challenge for nurses and caregivers.

Today — with a pandemic filling many hospitals and ICUs with patients, and widespread civic conflict occurring in many American cities — the daily stresses facing caregivers are at all-time highs. And even if you don’t realize you’re at risk, you may already be experiencing symptoms, in which case experts have some solid advice on how to deal with compassion fatigue.

According to a compassion fatigue study published in the Journal of Compassionate Health Care, most nurses and clinicians are already feeling some effects. On the emotional level, it can include feelings of cynicism, anxiety, boredom and irritability. It can affect you physically, too, causing higher blood pressure, weight gain and potentially even more serious dysfunction.

Step 2: Be aware of how you feel. Some of these symptoms are so common that it’s hard to identify them as something new, or as perhaps more intense than usual. Feeling anxious or irritable is perfectly normal. So how can you tell if you’re at risk?

As Sheena Maireen Saavedra, BSN, RN writes in an article for Nurselabs, the key is to understand that it’s all part of a process, and to be aware of how you’re feeling at any one time.

“It’s not a matter of one day, you’re living your life with a great deal of energy and enjoyment, and the next, you wake up exhausted and devoid of energy – both physical and emotional,” writes F. Oshberg, MD, as quoted by Saavedra. “Compassion fatigue develops over time – taking weeks, sometimes years to surface.”

As both Dr. Oshberg and Saavedra go on to explain, the initial symptoms gradually develop into deeper feelings of exhaustion and a lack of enjoyment in both professional and personal activities. It isn’t quite the same as burnout, but it can lead to similar effects. And, like burnout, nurses and clinicians are often reluctant to admit that it’s happening to them … until it’s too late.

To help you understand your risk level as early as possible, Saavedra offers some key questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you feel tired all the time?
  • Do you feel apathetic toward your patients, even slightly?
  • Is it hard to get up and go to work every day?
  • Are you feeling more irritable than normal, whether at home or at work?
  • Are you feeling pain or aches that you didn’t before, and that don’t seem to be connected to anything else?

Step 3: Practice self-care. If you’ve answered yes to any of the questions above, proceed with caution, and consider reaching out to your supervisor to discuss. Even if you don’t identity with the above items, though, but you do work in a high-stress clinical environment, there are steps you can take to downgrade your personal risk factor for compassion fatigue.

A great place to start is with self-care. According to the University of Vermont Health Network, this means checking in with yourself consistently — and then making sure you’re being honest and non-judgmental about what you’re telling yourself. And that means prioritizing — for just a moment — your own needs over that of what you “should” be doing or feeling.

Here are some ways to practice self-care in a proactive way:

  • Check-in. “What can I give myself? How am I feeling? What’s bothering me? What can I do about it? All of those questions are check-ins,” the UVM report explains. Think of the symptoms and questions above, and consider how your body and mind is reacting to all the stress factors you’re facing. Even if it doesn’t give you a firm idea on whether or not you’re feeling compassion fatigue, checking-in can be a soothing, calming action that can offer a good starting point to self-care by reducing general stress and providing a moment of meditation.
  • Focus. Saavedra also recommends focusing our energies on the tasks, or the thoughts, that are most important to us, to increase our personal reserves and decrease “requirements of what we have to do with our energy” to prioritize our most importance tasks. “Those are the two things that we can always change,” she writes. “Sometimes these changes need to be made on a daily basis, sometimes even an hourly basis, and during COVID-19, sometimes even on a moment-to-moment basis.”
  • Practice good health. In its most basic form, self-care involves giving our bodies the sleep, nutrition and hydration they need to stay functional. These busy times could leave you with less time to sleep as much as you should, or eat as healthily as you should. But at the same time, it’s never been more important to do so.
  • Turn to your community, co-workers, family and friends. Remember, you’re not alone: You’re part of a time of caregivers all working to meet a common goal — keeping the patients in your care as safe as possible. If that seems like an impossible goal sometimes, talking it through with others on your team, or even your family at home, can provide some crucial emotional support. By reminding yourself that you’re not alone, you can give yourself a new perspective and remind yourself that the work you’re doing is unique, and essential. “Studies show that having someone to lean on is a foolproof way to battle compassion fatigue,” Saavedra notes. “Pets can help,” she adds. “The love and affection that you can receive from a pet is a life saver as they can give it to you without asking for anything in return. It is also proven that sharing some time with animals can reduce blood pressure and heart rate. They are also good absorbers of your stress. Yes, even a pet fish can do the trick.”
  • Find a self-care buddy. Check-in not only with yourself, but with your co-workers — and be ready to accept their help if they offer it to you. To do this, some psychologists recommend having a “self-care buddy,” or someone you can check in with for “daily acts of self-care, such as taking breaks and drinking enough water to stay hydrated,” writes Rebecca A. Clay in a compassion fatigue report from the American Psychological Association.

Step 4: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. “Most importantly, if you want to talk about it with someone, do it! Do not keep your feelings to yourself,” Saavedra writes.

As we encourage all of the professionals within the CareerStaff network, if you feel that you’re in need of assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out to your supervisor or your recruitment contact. And remember, it’s not your fault — it’s the logical result of long hours of unending work, often with few breaks or moments to catch one’s breath.

These are intense times, and shifts are often longer than usual. Fear of catching the virus is also a factor, and for nurses working in ICU or critical care scenarios, a feeling of numbness can set in. If you’re feeling this way, know that help is available and that the first step is asking for, and accepting help from others.

“Be proud of your profession,” Saavedra offers by way of encouragement. “Your work is important. You are caring for people during the first-ever pandemic caused by a coronavirus and giving them hope and strength.”

“Be proud of your profession,” writes Sheena Maireen Saavedra, BSN, RN at Nurselabs. “Your work is important. You are caring for people during the first-ever pandemic caused by a coronavirus and giving them hope and strength.”

We can’t say it any better than that. Whether you’re wondering how to deal with compassion fatigue for yourself or a colleague, it’s essential to stay positive and to be unafraid to ask for help. Remember — you’re not just part of a community, but one of its most important members.

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