An important issue I believe psychologists, counselors, social workers and others in “helping” professions need to stay mindful of is something called “compassion fatigue.” I know, personally, I have always believed that I do a pretty good job of compartmentalizing the stories of trauma and tragedy I hear every day in working with my clients from the other aspects of my life, but I’m starting to believe more and more that those of us in the helping professions need to always be mindful of the need for “self-care” and to be deliberate in taking steps on a regular basis to engage in “self-care” to prevent the emotionally demanding nature of the work from taking a toll on our physical, emotional, and mental well being.
Compassion Fatigue was described by Figley in 1995 as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction – biologically, psychologically, and socially – as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.” He also stated that compassion fatigue is “identical to secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD) and is the equivalent of PTSD.” Within professional literature, compassion fatigue is also known as secondary traumatization or vicarious traumatization (Figley, 1995 and McCann and Saakvitne, 1995, as cited by Simpson and Starkey, 2006).
The things we in the helping professions need to do for self-care and to prevent compassion fatigue are the same things we tell our clients to do to take care of themselves. We need to make sure we are taking our own advice. We need to make a concerted effort to keep ourselves in good shape by doing things like exercise, yoga, meditation, eating right, getting enough sleep, and regularly engaging with professional and personal friends. It might be important to engage in supervision or consultation with a colleague and maybe even to enter therapy for yourself to process the tough aspects of your work. Taking up a new hobby or doing creative activities such as drawing, painting, photography, scrapbooking, etc. may also help to give you a boost. Spirituality also seems to play a central role in how well an individual manages the symptoms of compassion fatigue (Simpson and Starkey, 2006). We also need to take vacations and days off as needed—unplugging from cell phones and e-mail—to refresh and recharge.
Despite the emotionally demanding nature of the work I do, I am reminded every day of how blessed I am to have the opportunity to work with the clients I do and am uplifted and re-energized by their determination to persevere in the face of many obstacles and challenges and to improve their lives.