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Working through Compassion Fatigue during COVID-19

by Brittney Schrick - May 21, 2020

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been affecting people internationally since late 2019, here in the US we are in our third month of social distancing and other measures intended to slow the spread of the virus. Spring is normally a busy season of sports, activities, end-of-school-year functions, and preparations for an even more active summertime. At the beginning of our response to the current pandemic, we were forced to process our grief as we watched events unfold globally and locally. As things were canceled and plans changed and routines lost, we have adapted to a “new normal.”

Arkansas has not been as hard hit by COVID-19 as many other places, but we have had our share of cases, including deaths, and all of those cases have a ripple effect. The loved ones, coworkers, neighbors and others in contact with victims of COVID-19 are directly impacted by the virus and may experience trauma. Even for those who have not been directly affected by COVID-19, the disruption to routines, work, constantly changing expectations and rules, vigilance for one’s own health and the health of those they care for, as well as news reports of violence and other unexpected outcomes, we are tired. We are all connected, so in watching others suffer, we all suffer. In this particular case, the unknown nature of the virus has led us to experience a heightened state of awareness and anxiety for a long time…and we don’t know when it will resolve.

It is normal to feel overwhelmed, despondent, or even angry when processing traumatic events.

First responders, mental health professionals, doctors, nurses, social workers, and others who work closely with trauma survivors or who routinely respond to traumatic events may experience compassion fatigue. This is also referred to as secondary traumatic stress or trauma fatigue. This occurs when an empathy response, feeling the feelings of others, causes the professional to internalize the trauma of their patient or client after repeated exposure. So, for example, a therapist may have a patient who experienced a traumatic relationship that they are processing through therapy. The therapist listens to and may internalize the stories and emotions of the patient in a way that causes the therapist to experience trauma after the fact. Basically, the emotions of the carer are worn out. 

Symptoms of compassion fatigue.

This may not happen all at once. It often creeps in on a person in ways that aren't noticeable at first. In the case of this year, you may have felt heartbroken for every person you saw becoming ill, every front line worker who posted a gut-wrenching photo of kissing their child through a glass door, and every senior who missed out on prom or their last sports season. But as time passed, you may have begun to feel less and less as each new day brings new cases and new changes in rules and new horrors, or you may feel so overwhelmed by all of it that you have difficulty doing anything but completely checking out.

Symptoms may include dissociation (or feeling disconnected from yourself), anger, anxiety, trouble sleeping, nightmares, emotional disturbances, or feeling overwhelmed, powerless, or on edge. Physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches, or dizziness may also surface. Although these symptoms are most common among trauma victims and those who respond to traumatic events through direct contact with survivors, no one is immune to the effects when surrounded by, what may feel like, continual tragedy. Parents may feel the effects more strongly as they try to filter information and explain events to children.

In order to avoid the negative effects of compassion fatigue, it is important to acknowledge and name it. Often, simply taking a breath and noticing that you feel overwhelmed can be enough to start responding. The most effective way for a non-professional to address compassion fatigue is to limit exposure to the traumatic event or coverage of the events. While professionals are required as part of their jobs to continue exposure, a lay person is not. Turn off the television. Get away from social media. Connect (safely) with family and friends and other sources of strength. Engaging in self-care such as exercise, healthy eating, or other activities that give you a boost can protect you from disengaging emotionally or physically.

If you live or interact with front line workers, watch for signs of compassion fatigue. They are living through something right now that no amount of education could have truly prepared them for. Although all medical and helping professionals undergo training for disaster and trauma response, they are often in the form of drills or more specific, smaller scale experiences. The pandemic is affecting everyone at the same time in different ways. Other front line workers like custodial staff, food service and grocery workers, and other professions deemed essential were likely not trained to handle this level of intensity, so especially watch for signs of burnout and overall stress.

As we continue to adjust and work through new challenges, do your best to It is easy to get sucked into the endless news cycle of tragic events. Empathy with those who have suffered can cause feelings of disconnection from self and others as well as overwhelming emotions or even anger. Disconnecting from the news can help you reconnect with yourself and those around you so that you can avoid burning out.

For more information:

http://www.compassionfatigue.org/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/somatic-psychology/201207/compassion-fatigue

https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/the-cost-of-caring-10-ways-to-prevent-compassion-fatigue-0209167

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