Battling Compassion Fatigue

Compassion and empathy are almost prerequisites in the nursing field. It takes a very caring person to dedicate their entire career to nursing the sick and dying. Nurses bring comfort to people who need it most. 

Unfortunately, the same traits that make people the best nurses can also cause problems for them in the long run. Many nurses end up experiencing compassion fatigue, which is a common problem among people who work with those suffering from trauma. 

Compassion fatigue can be career-ending, and it can also affect a nurse’s health and well-being. So, what is compassion fatigue in nursing, and what’s the best way to prevent or treat it? Here’s what you need to know. 

What is Compassion Fatigue? 

Also known as secondhand traumatization or “vicarious traumatization,” compassion fatigue is a state of emotional distress that results from a specific type of stress — stress from exposure to people who have experienced trauma. Compassion fatigue can cause people to lose their ability to feel empathy for the people they care for and can also result in a range of mental or even physical health problems. 

Nurses, who care for sick and dying patients all day at work, are at high risk of developing compassion fatigue. It sometimes takes time and repeated exposure to secondhand trauma for compassion fatigue to develop, but it can also come on quite suddenly. 

Nurses who specialize in certain types of care, such as psychiatric nurses or hospice nurses, might begin to experience symptoms of compassion fatigue more quickly than those in departments with less exposure to trauma on a daily basis. Additionally, nurses who “go the extra mile” while neglecting their own needs or those who struggle to create boundaries between their work and personal lives are more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue. 

Signs and Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue 

It’s important for anyone working in the nursing field to know how to spot the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue in themselves and their colleagues. Early intervention can make a big difference in recovering from compassion fatigue and being able to continue in the field of nursing. Some symptoms to look out for include: 

  • Feeling numb or a lack of empathy toward patients 
  • Depersonalization 
  • Intrusive thoughts and an inability to stop thinking about trauma and suffering 
  • Physical and mental exhaustion 
  • Mood swings
  • Feelings of helplessness and/or hopelessness
  • Changes in worldview or sense of purpose
  • Reduced productivity 
  • Emotional disconnection 
  • Overwhelm
  • Compulsive behavior 
  • Addiction
  • Disrupted sleep 
  • Depression 
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability or anger
  • Headaches
  • Appetite changes 
  • Nausea/stomach issues 
  • Dizziness 

Because the symptoms of compassion fatigue can overlap with other mental health concerns, such as burnout, it’s not always clear as to which problem is affecting an individual. Not everyone will show the same symptoms or have the same symptom progression. However, compassion fatigue is always characterized by its defining feature: being caused by secondhand trauma. 

The Difference Between Compassion Fatigue and Nurse Burnout 

Many people use the terms “burnout” and “compassion fatigue” interchangeably in nursing. However, they are two different issues with some symptoms that overlap. 

Burnout describes the physical and mental exhaustion that goes along with an overwhelming workload, a lack of support, and other workplace issues. Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, is characterized by secondhand trauma exposure. There’s also a related problem known as “decision fatigue,” which can affect people in a range of different fields. 

While both burnout and compassion fatigue can cause nurses to develop physical and mental health issues, it’s important to understand the difference between them. Both issues can cause nurses to leave the nursing field, but for different reasons. 

The approaches to treating compassion fatigue and burnout are usually similar, focusing on self-care and rest, but compassion fatigue can require a more trauma-focused approach and should be recognized as a separate emotional state. 

How Can Nurses Prevent Compassion Fatigue? 

The best way for nurses to prevent compassion fatigue is to prioritize their own mental health and well-being. Being aware of the signs of compassion fatigue is a critical step. The symptoms might be mild at first, but they can increase over time with continued exposure to secondhand trauma. 

Nurses need to ensure that they are setting emotional boundaries between their work life and personal life. Without these boundaries, it’s very common for patients’ trauma to take over a nurse’s thoughts outside of work. Having hobbies, journaling, and spending time with friends and family can help nurses set these boundaries and leave work at work. 

Self-care is also important for preventing compassion fatigue. Getting enough sleep, exercising, eating a healthy diet (even during long shifts), and engaging in leisure activities are all important for maintaining good mental health. Techniques like deep breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation can also be helpful for nurses who are coping with stress and secondhand trauma. 

Recovering from Compassion Fatigue 

Nurses who develop compassion fatigue are at risk of developing alcohol and drug addictions to deal with the emotional burdens they carry. Many nurses also leave the profession due to compassion fatigue. However, it is possible for nurses to recover from compassion fatigue and continue in the field. 

Generally, recovering from compassion fatigue involves similar steps to preventing the problem in the first place: prioritizing self-care and proper boundaries. It can take some time for these changes to make a difference for someone who already has compassion fatigue, but it’s a critical first step. 

Asking for help from a mental health professional is also a good choice for those who have developed signs of compassion fatigue. Working with a therapist can help nurses process their feelings and heal so they can go to work and help others. 

Battling Compassion Fatigue: An Ongoing Project 

Everyone working in the nursing field needs to be aware of compassion fatigue and how to recognize it in themselves and in others. Battling compassion fatigue is an ongoing project that will be needed throughout a nurse’s career. Preventing the issue in the first place is much easier than fixing it later. 

As nurse workloads continue to become more demanding, rest and relaxation will only become more important. Nurses do some of the most important work in the world, and it’s important for them to prioritize self-care and ward off compassion fatigue. With an aging population and a shortage of healthcare staff in the United States, we can’t afford to have great nurses leaving the profession.

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