There I was, having the same kinds of nightmares I ask my clients about. A week before, I had just witnessed my client in a violent episode in a residential setting. I was also experiencing some other symptoms – self-doubt, looking around every corner, and being a bit cranky and resentful in work meetings. I had enough trauma training at that point to understand my symptoms as a normal response to a recent crisis.
With time and support from peers, these symptoms – most likely along the lines of normal acute stress – decreased and I was able to relax back into my regular routine. But in some situations, these symptoms might not subside naturally.
As you probably know, professional helpers are not necessarily immune to traumatic stress symptoms. We need just as much self-care, sometimes more, as everyone else. It’s helpful to self-evaluate from time to time to see where you’re at with self-care, burnout, and compassion fatigue.
The term compassion fatigue is used in various settings and has a few different definitions. I like the good old Webster’s definition, which says it’s the “physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdraw experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.” Does this sound like you or someone you know?
Here Are Some Specific Signs To Look For
I’ve adapted these from the American Institute of Stress and Compassion Fatigue Solutions:
- Overall exhaustion
- Sleep issues, nightmares
- Emotional regulation struggles
- Behavior and judgment changes
- Dread of seeing/working with clients
- Depression and PTSD-like symptoms
- Decreased self-worth
- Views about self and the world changing (feeling more discouraged, blaming clients or feeling generalized anger towards others
- Loss of hope and meaning
Some things that can make us more vulnerable to compassion fatigue and related issues include a lack of social support, struggles with personal boundaries and taking care of your own needs, and past trauma and mental health issues.
You can also assess where you’re at with burnout and compassion satisfaction with a commonly used screen called the PROQL.
Prevent And Seek Help For Burnout, Secondary Trauma And Compassion Fatigue
The good news is, there are plenty of things that can help you deal with compassion fatigue and secondary trauma, and even more things that can help you be resilient to them. If you’re not sure whether your symptoms are signs of a serious problem, it may be a good idea to consult with a colleague or make your own therapy appointment.
Techniques To Help You Cope
Here are some self-care techniques that you can start right away, to deal with your stress or prevent it from getting worse.
- Seek support – from family, friends, and/or peers
- Find training in evidence-based practices for your field, so you can be the most effective with your time, and experience results
- Focus on the positives – keep a list or journal about what things are going well in your day and with difficult cases
- Consult on difficult problems. Even the most experienced professionals may need a second opinion or affirmation from time to time.
- Exercise, eat healthy, and sleep. Most of us tell our clients to do this, so you know the drill. If you’ve forgotten some of the basic self-care tips, check out this helpful article that outlines 6 self-care strategies that are a good start to meeting your own needs.
- Find hobbies and activities that are outside of your professional field. We all need distraction and fun challenges in our lives.
- Look for supportive resources. Here’s a helpful podcast from discussing way to avoid burnout in private practice.
As we all know and preach to others, we need to take care of ourselves well enough to take care of others. Now may be a great time to put this advice into practice for yourself!
Jennie’s passion and purpose in life is to help others understand and heal from trauma and anxiety struggles. She runs a private therapy and consulting practice called The Counseling Palette in Columbia, Mo. There she helps clients as well as other professionals deal with anxiety, daily stress, post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and secondary trauma. She is trained and experienced in multiple PTSD therapies and also incorporates complimentary services like expressive art and movement. Jennie also consults on self-care, compassion fatigue and other related topics for organizations. Her favorite self-care tool is taking walks with her three-year-old Terrier mix named Claude Monet. You can learn more about her services or just get in touch to say hello by visiting www.thecounselingpalette.com.