When It Hurts Too Much To Care

Sara opened the door to her rusting, maroon 2003 Ford Taurus and slid sideways into the empty driver’s seat. “Wow,” she thought, “sitting down has never felt so good!” She raised a cup of hot, steaming coffee to her lips, sipping slowly as not to burn her mouth. She then allowed her head to sink softly into the headrest in an attempt to relax and clear her thoughts. A tear appeared in the corner of her right eye and began to trickle down her cheek. Another nightmare shift had come and gone at the local community hospital where Sara was employed as a registered nurse.

The past several weeks have proven extremely busy for the unit where Sara works. Patients are very sick, demanding more of her than any of the previous clients she could remember. One of her favorite patients died, while others continue to struggle with the pain and nuances of their chronic conditions, lack of family and social support, depression, and fear. New processes and computer updates are coming weekly as attempts are made to streamline care, meet quality and critical indicators, and save money. A colleague took unexpected ill time, resulting in Sara’s manager assigning her extra hours of mandatory overtime. Sara’s healthcare benefits package has changed and she is paying more money for less coverage. Her husband recently joined the ranks of the unemployed and her two children are begging to participate in sports and summer camps – and that is just the beginning.

While Sara has found herself complaining more to her boss about the workplace, clients and co-workers are voicing complaints about Sara that her manager finds to be a bit unusual and out of character. She is showing up to work late; unkempt and disheveled. She has gained a lot of weight. Sara is preoccupied, can’t seem to concentrate, and finds no joy in the things she once enjoyed the most.

Sara closed her eyes, wiped the tears from her face, and wondered if she had the strength to go home, fix dinner, clean the house, and spend time with her kids, let alone come back to work again that night. She had so wanted to change the world for good and now it seems so far out of reach, if not impossible. She is physically and emotionally spent and couldn’t care less about anything or anyone.

Let’s Talk About Compassion Fatigue

Compassion Fatigue – it’s not a new concept, but one we’ve brushed aside and cannot afford to ignore any longer! According to recent statistics, between 18% and 65% of health care workers (nearly 85% of emergency room nurses (1),25% of paramedics, and 34% of hospice nurses (2)) suffer from secondary traumatic stress and/or compassion fatigue.  But it’s not just limited to health care professionals – caregivers, or those who care for the dependent (and often chronically ill) family member, friend, neighbor, or client are also at risk.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion Fatigue can be described as the reactions to chronic stress from the care-giving efforts health care professionals and caregivers provide. The stress begins to manifest itself in negative ways and if not recognized, leads to an overall loss of caring or compassion.

Who’s At Risk?

Experts tell us individuals who identify with the hopeless, helpless, at risk, and suffering populations are predisposed to suffer compassion fatigue, because they already possess an element of fatigue by the mere fact their worldview consists of caring for others before caring for themselves. Add a lack of self-caring practices  to the mix, and the conditions are right for developing compassion fatigue. (3)

What Are The Signs?

The signs of compassion fatigue range from the annoying and irritating, to the disruptive and disabling. Here is a list of some (not all) signs you might discover in someone experiencing compassion fatigue:

  • Excessive complaining
  • Unusual complaints from others
  • Compulsive behaviors such as overeating, gambling, etc.
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Mental and physical exhaustion
  • Poor hygiene and appearance
  • Substance abuse

What Are The Solutions?

There are many ways health care providers and caregivers can prevent and/or recover from compassion fatigue. Here is a list of some (not all) suggestions:

  • Understand the job you do effects you – awareness is the first step
  • Get healthy – see your doctor and adopt a healthy diet and exercise routine
  • Seek counseling
  • Embrace your faith
  • Surround yourself with positive people and influences
  • Manage your life and lifestyles – be proactive and find balance
  • Learn to say “no”
  • Keep a journal
  • Schedule “me” time
  • Get at least 8 hours of sleep

What Should I Keep In Mind?

If you are a health care professional or caregiver, then understand God has created you as a unique and caring individual, entrusting you with this wonderful gift of caring. He has also created you with personal needs and limitations. By taking care of yourself, and perhaps decreasing the quantity of caring you provide, the quality of your caring can grow and mature into a meaningful and distinctive experience. Remember, even Christ Himself went away to the desert after ministering to the crowds who followed Him, so He could be ministered to by the angels.

1. Beck, C. (2011).Secondary traumatic stress in nurses: A systematic review. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 25(1), 1-10. Retrieved from  http://dx.doi.org.hslezproxy.ucdenver.edu/10.1016/j.apnu.2010.05.005

2. Hooper, et al. (2010). Compassion satisfaction, burnout, and compassion fatigue among emergency nurses compared  with nurses in other selected inpatient specialties. Journal of Emergency Nursing, 36(5), 420-427. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org.hslezproxy.ucdenver.edu/10.1016/j.jen.2009.11.027

3. Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. (2013). What is compassion fatigue? Retrieved November 19, 2013, from http://www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/compassionfatigue.html

©Copyright 2013 Scott Rhoades/Ivory Hill Studios

*Disclaimer: This forum is intended to provide general health and wellness information only. It is not a prescription and/or endorsement for any specific health/medical brand, product or program. You should ALWAYS consult your physician before starting, changing, modifying, or stopping any non-prescription and prescription medications, herbs, treatments, alternative therapies, exercise/wellness programs, physical and/or psychological therapies.

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