What is “compassion fatigue” and how to avoid it

Just as it sounds, compassion fatigue is when you start to be affected physically or emotionally by spending all your time taking care of others. It’s nothing new for nurses, but it’s good to remind yourselves that this can happen.


After all, many nurses think that they could never experience something like that. Do what you love and you won’t work a day in your life, right? How could a nurse practitioner, one with a calling to help others and provide for them, be at risk of developing “compassion fatigue”?


There’s a simple answer to that: the exhaustion that you can experience from taking care of others doesn’t have to do with your calling to be a nurse. It has to do with the challenges of the job, which you can’t always control.



Who can develop compassion fatigue?


Every nurse should be wary of this problem. However, there are some nurses that might be more susceptible to this than others. For example: psychiatric nurse practitioners, gerontology nurses, oncology nurses, and acute care NPs.


Why is that? Well, for example, PMHNPs often encounter traumatized patients. Helping them with these traumas might cause them to be emotionally disturbed to the point of being emotionally affected.


Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re bad NPs. It just means they’re human.


The other NPs mentioned above might be at risk of having patients die while on their care, sometimes even more so than other NPs. There is always a trauma attached to the death of a patient.


That trauma can lead them to develop this type of fatigue if they don’t take adequate care of themselves.


Identifying compassion fatigue


You can identify the signs and symptoms of this problem by taking a look at yourself. Are you feeling a little detached from your profession lately? Do you find it difficult to be compassionate towards your patients?


These questions might sound terrible. How could that even happen? Every patient is important. However, you should always recognize that you are not a robot. You can’t always leave work at the clinic.


If you are starting to develop certain emotions that might seem negative towards your career, there’s a good chance you’re in the early stages of compassion fatigue.


Other common symptoms are:


  • You’re finding it hard to sleep well
  • You’re feeling less satisfied with your job
  • You’re becoming more irritable or short-tempered


As you can see, the first signs are emotional. They usually precede other physical symptoms, such as stress, which can cause you to have headaches, stomach issues, etcetera.


Other symptoms include depersonalization, forgetfulness, and even weight loss, apart from repeated physical exhaustion. You have to really watch out for this kind of fatigue, because it can have lasting consequences on your overall health.


Compassion fatigue happens when you’re throwing yourself too much into your own work. You start feeling like you can’t leave your work problems behind at all when you get home. You might also dwell too much into certain things that happened at work. 


There’s no perfect nurse. That’s for sure. We all make mistakes and we all worry. However, this type of fatigue might lead you to think that you are not qualified enough to be a nurse. It might lead you to have impostor syndrome, which can be very detrimental to your everyday routine.



Why compassion fatigue is different than burnout


You might read some articles online comparing this condition to “burnout,” which does have some similarities.


However, burning out at the workplace comes from a different set of circumstances. Burnout might have similar physical and mental symptoms to compassion fatigue, but it’s usually brought about by things like:


  • Increased demands at your place of work
  • Constant lack of medical resources
  • Policies that affect how you do your job in a negative way


Burning out is more about external stressors affecting you at the workplace. We could even tie it to insufficient resource trauma, which also affects a great number of nurses.


The term “compassion fatigue” itself has been debated by many medical professionals. They believe it implies that nurses stop caring about patients, about what they do in the clinical setting. There are other similar terms, like secondary traumatic stress disorder.


However, nurses can have this kind of fatigue and still care about their patients. In fact, sometimes they care so much that they feel guilty for thinking how they think and feeling how they feel. If this sounds like you, don’t fall for that!



Best ways to avoid compassion fatigue


To combat this condition, you first must be aware that you’re suffering from it. Don’t deny that your job affects you in the way that it does. We know that it can seem like you failed at being a nurse practitioner, but this is not the case.


Take your physical and emotional symptoms to the surface. Accept them and be conscious about them.


It is perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed, to feel tired. This kind of condition comes from the job itself. In many cases it isn’t your fault.


Instead of trying to put the blame on yourself, try to seek out ways to balance your life again. To find enough rest to start feeling better.


Here are some things you can do to avoid, or treat, compassion fatigue:


Don’t let go of your hobbies and interests


Having an outlet for your frustrations and negative symptoms is key. Many nurses choose to abandon these things to try and excel in their careers. That might work for a while, but then you’ll find yourself completely devoted to your work and nothing else, which brings negative consequences.


How can you avoid fatigue in the workplace when there’s nothing out there to take your mind off things? Consider that. Also, Netflix and social media are good distractions, but they aren’t replacements for healthy, after work activities.


Practice self-care and mindfulness


Meditation, healthy eating, and exercise can go a long way. You might think that you avoid self care for some time in order to become better at your job. You might succeed, but at what cost? You’ll most likely have problems like this one later down the road.


Doing something for yourself everyday will help you to keep in touch with other sides of your personality. It’s important to take care of them so you don’t lose yourself in your career.


Consider going to therapy


It’s terrible to say that this is taboo for many people, even nurses! That’s a very bad thing because therapy can help everyone. A therapist can help you get your personal and professional problems out to the surface.


Nurses should be the first ones advocating for therapy and the importance of mental health. Going to therapy can have incredible long-term benefits. Consider finding a psychologist or psychiatrist that you can talk to about your symptoms.



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