Resiliency Posts

Compassion Fatigue is not just a Social Service Problem


This past month, CNN reported on an Uber internal memo acknowledging that their special investigative unit is beginning to suffer the impact of investigating everything from assaults, threats and other traumatic incidents. In the social service world, we call this “Compassion Fatigue” or secondary traumatic stress. It occurs in high stress occupations that involve exposure to the trauma experienced by another. Those who routinely witness the aftermath or hear stories of trauma, can experience symptoms that mirror PTSD.

An Uber company spokesperson told CNN, that they were “very focused on ways to support safety response agents, including helping them cope with the stress and challenges of this important job.”

Good for Uber for recognizing the need to respond. However, combating compassion fatigue involves so much more than stress management. Understanding the impact of secondary trauma (witnessing the trauma of others) on the brain and body is the first step in an effective response as well as preventative actions for both individuals and organizations.

It is time we recognize that violence and trauma have an impact on all of us. Even witnessing trauma second hand can create a ripple effect that takes its toll on our families and communities.

I believe the necessity as well as the responsibility for understanding the effects of both primary and secondary trauma has widened to include mainstream businesses and organizations. If you are dealing with people, you are going to have to acknowledge the impact of trauma.

Numbing is Not Self-Care

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In the human service arena, organizations are getting better at recognizing the need to encourage self-care for their employees. Indeed, taking care of oneself is an essential element in combatting compassion fatigue. Those that suffer from chronic exposure to stress and secondary trauma are left exhausted and can feel a need to shut out the source of their pain.

Unfortunately, this leads some to choose activities in the name of “self-care,” that involve numbing our emotional connections. This can create a disconnect when what we need is to reconnect.

I’m not just referring to drinking or other substance use. Numbing can also include “vegging” in front of the television, playing repetitive games on your phone, or mindlessly scrolling through social media. None of these activities are necessarily harmful in themselves. They just might lack the nourishing connection that real self-care can provide. Even worse, it is difficult to selectively numb negative emotions without losing the positive ones. Thus, we are inadvertently denying ourselves the source of genuine healing and revitalization.

There is a valid need to transition from work to home, but this should involve identifying feelings not numbing them. For human service workers, it is useful to develop habits to help process the events and emotions of the day. Transition rituals, like routine debriefing, creates a healthy boundary that allows us to put the day behind us and be present for other aspects of our life.

Additionally, we all occasionally need to unwind from a challenging days’ work, especially those who work in stressful environments. However, there is a fine line between what is relaxing and what is numbing. When we are effectively caring for our mind, body and spirit, we should feel a sense of rejuvenation. Remember, it is not the activity itself that is the problem, it is how you are engaging in it. It is up to you to determine if you are engaging in an activity to numb or to connect. When choosing to unwind, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this activity help me to feel rejuvenated?
  • Does this activity help me to focus?
  • Does this activity increase my awareness?
  • Can I keep track of time during this activity (as opposed to time slipping away without our knowledge?)
  • Does this activity help me to sleep better?

Try to choose activities that you can answer yes to.

Of course, effective self-care involves developing habits that incorporate self-care strategies into our regular routines. Here are just a few self-care ideas that are connective:

Engaging the senses:  Activities that engage our senses ground us to the present. This might include listening to music, appreciating visual art, noticing beauty in nature, or savoring a nutritious meal. Enlivening the five senses of touch, sound, sight, smell and taste, heighten our awareness as well as our appreciation of our surroundings.

Rest and relaxation: Ensuring a good night’s sleep is one of the most compassionate things we can do for both our bodies and our minds. In addition to committing to a reasonable bedtime, it is also important to learn relaxation techniques that incorporate body awareness. Techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and meditation, help us to switch on our parasympathetic nervous system to decompress from our stress responses and increase our bodies ability to rest.

Taking walks:  We all know exercising is good for the body, but it doesn’t have to involve going to the gym. Just get moving. A walk around the block can help you process your thoughts, fill your lungs with fresh air and increase circulation. Doing it outdoors gives you the added benefit of connecting with nature.

Being creative:  Write, sing, paint, build, sew…being creative in any form involves emotional expression at some level. Besides, there is no denying the surge of positive energy that comes from creating something.

Recreation and leisure:  I like to lead participants in my self-care trainings in an exercise that involves naming the activities that they did as a child or young adult that brought them joy. So often we push play or other amusements out of our lives because we view it as unimportant. When in fact, it can be a valuable contribution to our overall well-being.

Though, choosing effective self-care strategies like those mentioned above might involve a little more thought and planning, there is an added benefit. Practicing self-care that is connective instead of numbing can increase our ability to connect with others; and social connectivity is one of our most powerful sources of healing and resiliency.



Cultivating Compassion to Combat Compassion Fatigue

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In my work with human service organizations, compassion fatigue is one of the most requested training or consultation topic. I have found that organizations are getting better at recognizing the need for self-care. However, most efforts lack a true understanding of what compassion fatigue is and how to best combat it, both individually and within the organizational culture.

Compassion fatigue is a condition effecting those who routinely care for others such as social workers, nurses, physicians and first responders. It is the cumulative effect of chronic stress and exposure to the trauma of others (known as secondary or vicarious trauma.) Those who routinely witness the aftermath or hear stories of trauma, can experience symptoms that mirror PTSD.   Repeated exposure to secondary trauma is exasperated by the chronic stress associated with the work. This leaves care providers feeling both mentally and physically exhausted.  Those who suffer from compassion fatigue often report experiencing dissociative symptoms such as being “in a fog.” They can also struggle to feel empathetic towards clients. Additional psychological symptoms can include distractibility, irritability, anxiety, anger and sleep disturbances as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and nausea.

Although it is important to recognize the symptoms, truly understanding compassion fatigue begins with understanding the brain. One of primary goals of our complicated brain is survival.

Our nervous system has billions of pathways that send and receive messages across different regions of the brain and to the body. Our autonomic nervous system controls unconscious body functions such as breathing, heart rate, circulation and digestion. It is made up of two opposing systems. When the parasympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system is stimulated, it helps to regulate our normal body functions. But, when the brain sends the distress signal, the sympathetic side prepares the body for fight or flight by increasing heart rate, concentrating blood flow, and slowing down the body functions it determines to be less essential.

Compassion Fatigue is our survival response to chronic stress and exposure to the pain and trauma of others. Mirror neurons that help us to be empathetic, allow us to feel another’s suffering. Because being empathetic and compassionate can be painful, our brain interprets empathy and compassion as a threat which triggers our body to prepare for a fight, flight or freeze survival response.

In addition to stimulating the “fight or flight” responses of the sympathetic nervous system, the brain can also trigger a “freeze” survival response. This can include the numbing of emotions and avoiding empathetic responses that leave us vulnerable to more pain.

This can lead us to believe that we are depleted of compassion. In fact, this is not the case. Compassion is renewable.

A good analogy to help us understand compassion fatigue is the circuit breaker box in our homes. We have probably all had the experience of having too many electrical appliances running at once. As a safety feature, this condition can sometimes “trip the breaker.” When this happens, the power goes out. This does not mean that we are out of electricity. We just need to unplug a few things and reset the circuit breaker to restore power.

Too often, caring professionals don’t take the time or are unaware of the need to reset.

The great paradox of compassion fatigue is that compassion is not only the trigger, it is the antidote. We don’t need less compassion, we need to restore its ability to heal and connect us. Therefore, combatting compassion fatigue requires cultivating compassion. It involves skill sets and mindsets that go beyond self-care (though this is an important component.) In individuals, these skills involve practice until they become habit. Cultivating compassion in organizations involves embedding these practices in the culture:

Self-awareness:  This includes the ability to be able to identify thoughts and feelings, both emotions and body sensations, and recognizing our triggers and responses.

Self-regulation:   Deep breathing, mindfulness exercises and other techniques can help “trip the breaker” and restore our autonomic nervous system to the parasympathetic state.

Exercising empathy:  Responding with empathy instead of judgment enhances our ability to connect.

Clarifying boundaries:  All healthy human interactions need boundaries. Healthy boundaries are clearly defined and communicated. They help us to be able to function safely and allow us to safely practice empathy.

Routine debriefing:  Develop a habit of processing the events of the day including thoughts and feelings without judgment. Debriefing not only increases self-awareness, but it creates a healthy boundary that allows us to put the day behind us and be present for other aspects of our life.

Expressing gratitude:  Cultivating a gratitude mindset helps us to focus on the positive and is linked to increased overall well-being.

Connecting:  The benefits of social connectivity are numerous. In addition to the support and added resources a strong social network can provide, the oxytocin produced when we connect socially promotes well being and stress recovery.

Practicing self-care:  Developing habits that are good for the mind, body and spirit increases our well-being and decreases our vulnerability to compassion fatigue.

It is an inevitable truth that we cannot deny compassion for others without denying compassion for ourselves and we cannot withhold self-compassion without eventually withholding it from others. Therefore, combating compassion fatigue and restoring compassion is crucial for both human service organizations and each individual care provider.





Truth, Reality and Decision-Making


In today’s world of social media, political polarization, and “fake news,” truth and reality can sometimes seem like slippery concepts. They remain, however, no less essential in solving problems, making sound decisions and otherwise safely navigating life. Continue reading “Truth, Reality and Decision-Making”

Why Social Connectivity is a Super Resiliency


Resiliencies are the skill sets and mindsets needed to successfully navigate the challenges of life. They can be cultivated and learned throughout a lifetime. But, before we learn anything, our brain is already wired for survival. Continue reading “Why Social Connectivity is a Super Resiliency”

Should I Trust My Gut?


I’m not sure who said it first, but I always liked the saying “Never make a permanent decision based on temporary feelings.” This seems like opposite advice to adages like “trust your gut,” or “follow your heart.” Continue reading “Should I Trust My Gut?”

4 Ways to Practice Flexible Thinking When Problem Solving


While at the beach the other day, I noticed a young boy trying to move his beach umbrella. As he lifted it from the sand, a gust of wind tuned it inside out. He struggled to Continue reading “4 Ways to Practice Flexible Thinking When Problem Solving”

7 Ways to Improve Critical Thinking and Challenge Brain Bias

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In a world where we are bombarded with quick bites of information with questionable validity, the need for critical thinking is more important than ever. Continue reading “7 Ways to Improve Critical Thinking and Challenge Brain Bias”

6 Habits of Growth Minded Leaders

GrowthSince researcher Carol Dweck introduced us to the concept of the growth mindset, a lot has been said about its role in achieving success for individuals. The same holds true for organizations. Continue reading “6 Habits of Growth Minded Leaders”

4 Things To Reflect On While You Are Being Patient

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Patience is more than a virtue, it can also be a resiliency.

It is not about getting stuck or being afraid to act. Patience is the deep breath between situation and response. Continue reading “4 Things To Reflect On While You Are Being Patient”