Extreme tiredness, negative feelings, weight gain, and marital problems.
One moment, Kayla thought she was depressed and that medication would help. Another moment, she thought her husband was the problem and that she should quit her marriage.
But Kayla wasn’t depressed. She suffered from something that affects many professional caregivers.
In recent years, Mary Jo Barrett, author and social worker from the Center for Contextual Change, in Elmhurst, IL, has helped many nurses deal with compassion fatigue. Read on as Mary Jo describes what it is, how it affects a nurse at work and home, and some simple solutions to fight it:
What is at the root of compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is the physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual exhaustion a caregiver experiences.
And the symptoms?
They vary from person to person. When you’re intellectually depleted, you feel stupid, incompetent, and judgmental. You start comparing yourself to other professionals; you might decide you’re better or worse than them. There’s a lot of self-judgment. You start believing your work isn’t meaningful or won’t really help.
Physically, it’s easy to have a breakdown. Nurses eat mindlessly and gain weight. They might struggle with addiction to caffeine, alcohol, or drugs. They’re trying to medicate; they’re trying to soothe.
For those of faith, some might even have a spiritual crisis. They stop believing, lose sight of the role of faith in healing, and become bitter.
How does compassion fatigue spill over into other aspects of a nurse’s life?
“Shutting down” carries over into the home life.
The energy you use as a nurse is the exact same energy you use to be a mother, partner, or child. At the end of the day, you might not have the emotional energy to listen to your partner or kids. You might bring the numbing feeling home, or you might act hypervigilant and overprotect your kids from every little thing.
Nurses also see the world through the eyes of the illness or disease they specialize in. For example, neonatal nurses—mostly younger women—are neurotically anxious about having babies. When a nurse is pregnant, they talk to the doctor about everything that could go wrong, even though they’re nurses. Some are even afraid of getting pregnant.
How do you counter and heal compassion fatigue?
Nurses need to understand the consumption, conservation, and replacement of energy. They need to be mindful. When you’re mindless, you’re consuming energy instead of replenishing it.
What are some things nurses can mindfully do?
They should mindfully eat. Nurses wonder why they have no energy; the problem is that they load up on white sugar, white flour, and caffeine. Instead of eating doughnuts or downing Diet Coke, nurses should include lots of protein in their diets.
They can also mindfully relax. Attend to your breathing by practicing meditation. Listen to music, which is neurologically proven to change your mood. Keep flowers at your station and use aromatherapy. Also exercise 30 minutes every day. It may mean 10 minutes, 3 times a day. Another simple thing is to sit in a chair that supports your neck and back.
Take breaks. You don’t have to take an hour—take a few minutes. If a patient dies, instead of moving mindlessly on to the next patient, take two minutes and let it affect you. If you have a terrible disagreement with a doctor or administrator, take three minutes and think about something you really love about your job.
What about nurses who say there’s not enough time to do all this?
I understand their viewpoint, but that’s the compassion fatigue talking. Everybody has time; you have to prioritize.
You’re not as efficient when you’re exhausted. The more compassion fatigue you have now, the more you’ll have later—it feeds on itself. By the same token, energy creates more energy. Replenishment re-feeds itself.