Compassion Fatigue and Covid

How does the pandemic impact helping professionals?

Compassion fatigue is hardly a new phenomenon. Helping professionals have long experienced the impact of chronic exposure to secondary trauma and stress associated with their work. But circumstances created with the Covid-19 pandemic could be challenging compassionate helpers on a whole new level.

Compassion fatigue impacts those in helping professions such as nurses, first responders, therapists, social workers, teachers, and other professionals who work with people who have experienced trauma. It is our survival response to chronic stress and exposure to the pain and trauma of others.  When the amygdala in our brain senses a threat, it triggers a stress response. Overtime, this can result in a myriad of symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, sleep and digestive problems, exhaustion and feeling emotionally depleted. With compassion fatigue, the perceived threat becomes the compassionate work we do.

But, when our threat response is triggered, we also become motivated to seek safety. Our means for doing so usually involve attempting to control our circumstances, connecting with others, or relying on our own internal resources. These actions can calm the amygdala and help to mitigate the impact of chronic stress. Unfortunately, these methods have been compromised by the current circumstances of the pandemic in the following ways.

  • Uncertainty:  The past months have been plagued with uncertainty for all of us. Helping professionals are responding to contingency plans that change weekly. Often decisions are being made beyond their level of involvement. This severely limits their ability to gain a sense of control over their own environment.
  • Isolation:  Most helping professionals rely heavily on their coworkers to help them process their experiences. Colleagues provide a type of support and understanding that cannot be easily duplicated by those outside of the work. Physical distancing means limiting the ability to regularly connect to core support networks. Virtual alternatives help, but many helping professionals still feel the impact of increased isolation.
  • Competency:  When we see a problem that we know how to solve, our triggered amygdala receives a message of safety that calms our response. Competent helping professionals are now being asked to solve problems that stretch their former skill sets. Teachers are having to learn new ways to deliver online lessons; social workers and mental health providers have to assess situations from a distance; and health care professionals have been challenged to provide care while containing a virus they know little about. Though helping professionals in all sectors are rising to the occasion, they continue to face obstacles that can challenge their sense of competency.

Though quality self-care is always important, combatting compassion fatigue requires a system response. Now more than ever it is imperative that we come together to support the helping professionals and organizations serving our communities.

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