Over the past year, I have begun to feel some of the wearing effects of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue can be defined as fatigue caused by empathy. It is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping suffering or traumatized people. This concept was foreign to me before beginning my position here at The Kim Foundation.
Only a few months into my current role as Project Coordinator, our Executive Director handed me a book to read called “Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others.” She explained how important it is to take care of ourselves especially when we spend so much time advocating for others. At that time, I was blissfully unaware of some of the difficult realities that came along with working as an advocate for mental health and suicide prevention.
As I read through it, I discovered that many of the professionals who contributed to the book had similar careers that revolved around serving the community. They also each dealt with a lot of secondary trauma. For example, while many of the situations we are presented with on a daily basis may not affect us directly, we are exposed to trauma by the people we work with and serve. Listening to someone’s struggle with mental illness, trying to help someone find services when they have already exhausted multiple options, or hearing a heartbreaking story about someone losing a loved on to suicide, are all situations we are faced with on a weekly basis. Without healthy coping skills, or consistent self-care techniques, prolonged exposure to secondary trauma can cause chronic fatigue, anger, sadness, poor concentration, fearfulness, emotional exhaustion, detachment, and physical illness.
I asked Mary Kate Hoffmann, LCSW with Methodist Community Counseling Program, why self-care is so important to practice. “In a field where the primary focus is on caring for others, it is easy to forget to take care of ourselves. Often when we are busy, the first and easiest thing to eliminate from our schedules is self-care,” she explained. “Neglecting self-care can lead to compassion fatigue. Not only does compassion fatigue negatively affect the sufferer, but it also impacts our ability to care for effectively others.”
In order to manage this ongoing stress, I have adopted my own self-care routine. When I begin to feel myself getting overwhelmed with the events of the day, I now make the conscience decision to put my needs first. While this may sound selfish, it is a critical piece in ensuring our ability to help others when they are in need of assistance.
So what exactly is self-care? Self-care is an approach to living that incorporates behaviors that refresh you, replenish your personal motivation, and help you grow as a person. Creating time for yourself each day is vital in maintaining energy, concentration, and overall wellness. There are three components of self-care: physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual.
Physical self-care is probably the most obvious form. Going to the gym on a regular basis, taking a walk, swimming laps, and stretching, are all good examples of physical self-care. Maintaining an active lifestyle can help boost your immune system, it increases endorphins (the “happy” hormone), decreases stress, and can increase your self-confidence. Diet also plays a huge part in your physical well-being. While ordering a cheesy pizza or picking up carry out after a long workday may sound like a good idea, maintaining a healthy diet is crucial. Be sure to eat processed foods in small moderation. Because the mind and body are one, whatever you do to care for your body also impacts your brain, and your mental wellness.
Mental and emotional self-care can sometimes be more complex. For someone with a mental disorder, this may include continuing medication, attending regular therapy sessions, joining a support group, as well as enjoying time with friends and family. For me, I find that spending time with my dogs allows me to mentally and emotionally relax after a stressful day. Any time I begin to feel particularly negative or down, I take a moment to make a list all of all the things I am thankful for. Sometimes just a gentle reminder about how much you have to be grateful for is enough to turn your mood around. Other activities such as taking a relaxing bath, getting a message, keeping a journal, and taking some time to be alone with your thoughts, can be helpful ways to improve your mental and emotional wellness.
Religious or not, spiritual self-care is important for everyone to practice. Spiritual self-care does not only refer to regular prayer or meditation, it can mean finding a connection to a higher power (whatever that may be to you) and finding a meaning for our lives. There are many ways you can practice spiritual self-care. Some examples are: taking a nature walk, watching the sunrise or sunset, volunteering, participating in organized religion, or reading spiritual literature.
“Self-care can be as small as taking deep breaths before a meeting and as big as an extended vacation. Work self-care into your schedule where you are able. Sometimes taking a walk at lunch isn’t an option, but shutting your door and listening to calming music is,” says Hoffmann. “I would also recommend involving others in helping you. Whether you see a therapist or just engage your co-workers in some healthy ways, it can help lessen the feelings of isolation that compassion fatigue can bring on.”
Be the best and healthiest you you can be; take some time to find your own effective self-care techniques.
About Jill Sauser, The Kim Foundation Project Coordinator
Jill graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Speech Communication from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. During her time at UNO, she completed a two year PR practicum program where she worked with numerous nonprofit clients including the MS Society, The Archdiocese of Omaha, The Omaha Food Bank, and YWCA. Since becoming Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation in April 2014, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, The Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, the Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, the Metro Area LOSS Team, and is helping lead a community-wide health improvement initiative with the Douglas County Health Department called, “Just Reach Out,” which is focused on improving the people’s view on mental and behavioral health treatment.