People are drawn to the helping professions for many different reasons. They may feel a calling to assist in relieving others’ suffering and to help them heal from their emotional wounds. They may have been traumatized themselves and wish to share the coping skills they’ve learned with others going through similar issues. Or they may feel caring for others brings meaning and a sense of purpose to their lives.
Whatever their reasons for becoming a therapist or other helping professional, they often experience vicarious trauma through the stories told by the people they work with. This secondary trauma, also referred to as compassion fatigue, can seriously hinder their work if they remain unaware of its negative impact and/or do not practice sufficient self-care strategies.
Becoming aware of the signs of compassion fatigue is the first step in addressing the issue. The following are some red flags:
- Preoccupation with the traumatic stories of the people they work with
- Emotional symptoms of anger, grief, mood swings, anxiety, or depression
- Physical issues related to stress, such as headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, or problems sleeping
- Feeling burned out, powerless, hopeless, disillusioned, irritable, and/or angry toward “the system”
- A tendency to self-isolate, be tardy, avoid certain people, or experience a lack of empathy and loss of motivation
Some of the professionals most likely to experience compassion fatigue include therapists, social workers, child welfare workers, emergency workers, police officers, firefighters, and ministers. However, anyone working with trauma survivors is susceptible to vicarious trauma. Helping professionals who have been subjected to trauma themselves also may be more at risk for developing compassion fatigue, especially if they have not worked through their issues.
Developing an adequate self-care strategy is key to preventing or overcoming vicarious trauma. Some of the techniques that can be used include:
- Maintain a good work-life balance. This involves taking time off to recharge and avoiding working long hours and/or carrying too heavy of a caseload or workload.
- Exercise to relieve stress. Developing a good workout routine is important to help increase feel-good endorphins and improve one’s outlook on life. Taking a yoga class, doing aerobic activity, or even just going for a walk can be invigorating and help change one’s perspective.
- Start a meditation practice. Initially, try sitting quietly for just 10 minutes a day, then gradually increase the time to 20 minutes. Meditation has many benefits and can assist one with feeling more peaceful and grounded.
- Develop a good social network. Having a good support system in place is important in order to be able to connect with others in a meaningful way.
- Use humor to unwind. Humor is good medicine when it comes to relieving stress and improving one’s mood. Watch a comedy, play with a pet, read a funny book—whatever moves you and helps you relax.
- Reconnect with Mother Nature. Being out in nature is therapeutic, whether you go for a hike in the woods, a walk on the beach, or just do a little gardening.
- Get involved with activities outside of work. Take your mind off of work by taking a class or engaging in a creative endeavor such as drawing, painting, or writing.
- Meet with a therapist to discuss concerns. Even individuals in the helping professions can benefit from meeting with a counselor, especially when they are experiencing compassion fatigue. A compassionate therapist can help put things in perspective and help identify additional coping skills.
Although all helping professionals are in danger of developing compassion fatigue, especially when working with individuals who have experienced traumatic events, having a self-care plan in place can help reduce the risks.
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