“Slowly you may have transformed from a helper to one in need of help. It’s important to talk about this, to identify the wounds you carry.”

Jenn Bruer, Helping Effortlessly: A Book of Inspiration and Healing

People who serve in medical missions tend to be warm, empathetic, and compassionate. They are the type to always go the extra mile to ensure that the people they are serving feel the love of Christ. These are highly admirable qualities to have. But they also leave a person vulnerable to a condition known to mental health professionals as compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue, a specific kind of burnout, is also known as secondary trauma. It happens when someone is repeatedly exposed to the traumas of others. People in careers that prioritize serving others, such as the medical, mental health, or emergency response fields, are at risk for this condition. As we take in the trauma of others, our nervous systems become activated, leading to symptoms that mirror the trauma of those around us.

Empathy is what motivates us to care for others. It is what allows us to feel their pain and leads to feelings of compassion. In turn, our feelings of empathy move us to action to make the world a better place for people needing assistance. 

Unfortunately, empathy can also be a double-edged sword; because our sense of empathy allows us to experience the feelings of others, our bodies don’t know how to distinguish between personal trauma and the trauma of those we care for. We may find ourselves shutting down in our ability to feel kindness towards others because our emotional energy is beginning to shift us into survival mode. 

Symptoms Of Compassion Fatigue

“Andy has a form of burnout called compassion fatigue, a deep physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion accompanied by acute emotional pain. Whereas physicians with burnout adapt to their exhaustion by becoming less empathetic and more withdrawn, compassion-fatigued physicians continue to give themselves fully to their patients, finding it difficult to maintain a healthy balance of empathy and objectivity.”

American Academy of Family Physicians; Overcoming Compassion Fatigue

The telltale signs of secondary trauma are many. The symptoms can appear as physical, mental, or a combination. While we won’t list every possible manifestation of the condition, here are just a few symptoms that could warn us that we are experiencing compassion fatigue.

WebMD lists some of the symptoms as:

  • Mood Swings
  • Detachment From Social Life
  • Feelings of Anxiety or Depression
  • Trouble Concentrating or Feeling Productive
  • Insomnia
  • Addiction
  • Physical Symptoms such as exhaustion, headaches, changes in appetite, and more

How To Avoid Compassion Fatigue

No one wants to experience compassion fatigue; it’s an exhausting condition that can vastly interfere, not just with our work (paid or volunteer), but also wreaks havoc on our personal lives and cut into our social activities or hobbies. But the good news is that, just because you might work around a lot of trauma, you do have options to care for your physical and mental health. There are several ways to be proactive in avoiding the impact of secondary trauma.

The first step in avoiding or treating compassion fatigue is to educate yourself on what the condition is, how it develops, and how it can manifest in your life and body. Since you are reading this article, you’ve already begun the journey: congratulations! Another critical step is to educate yourself on mental health and wellness and learn to prioritize these things in your life. Here are a few helpful tips to accomplish this task.

Learn to be more aware of what your body is communicating to you

Our bodies are magnificent machines and were created to communicate whenever we are approaching our limitations, but we must train ourselves to listen to our bodies’ messages.

For some people, reaching limitations might mean feeling a sense of being tired or needing a rest. For others, it may come in the form of body aches or stomach issues. Learn the language of your body, and it will communicate to you all that you need to know.

Start Journaling

Journaling is an age-old therapeutic measure that has been a favorite for many since humankind learned to put pen to paper. And no wonder! There are many benefits to the practice of journaling:

  • It offers therapeutic release: journaling gives your mind a way to release all of the thoughts that feel too big to process internally. 
  • Journaling mimics the feeling of speaking to a friend: You know you can say anything and everything without fear of judgment. You may just be writing to a blank page, but it is a safe place to put all of your anxieties, frustrations, and concerns that you need to get out of your head. 
  • Journaling is a great way to make sense of whatever is weighing on you: Sometimes, all that is needed is to find a way to articulate what is on our minds, and then the thing that we most need to understand has a way of appearing before us. 

Take Up A New Exercise Routine

Bodies under stress must find a way to move that anxious energy out of their systems. There are many ways to accomplish this:

  • Go for a Long Walk
  • Take up Jogging
  • Join a Dance Class
  • Take Out a New Gym Membership

Not only will the exercise be good for you, but it can also lead to meeting new people, making new friends, and extending your social circle – which has a number of mental health benefits too!

Identify Areas In Your Life That Need Boundaries

People whose hearts are filled with compassion and empathy often struggle to identify when and how to set boundaries. But boundaries are a form of self-care that should not be neglected.

The benefits of boundaries – with people and work – are twofold:

  • They allow us to communicate with those around us about how to be in a relationship with us.
  • They allow us to be the best versions of ourselves in our work by identifying what is healthy to allow in our lives. 

Lean On Loved Ones

Those in helping professions love to give. We love it so much that we struggle to allow others to care for us. We sometimes allow ourselves to believe the lie that we are not worthy of being cared for in our weak moments.

But there is a reason that the Bible tells us not to forsake the gathering together of believers; we were designed to be in community. We are stronger together because we can lean on one another and encourage each other:

And let us consider each other carefully for the purpose of sparking love and good deeds. Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.

Hebrews 10:24-25, CEB

Seek Out Professional Help

There is no shame in seeing a mental health professional. Like a medical doctor learning to treat the physical body, licensed therapists/counselors receive extensive training to understand how the human mind works, how trauma impacts our lives, and what healing can look like.

Mental health professionals are also excellent resources if you need a neutral party to help you process things in your life. They can also help you determine what you need to thrive in your personal and professional life.

God Cares About Your Mental Health

Compassion fatigue is a regular part of serving professions, but it never has to be a place where one gets stuck. We have many resources within our reach to prevent compassion fatigue or to treat and heal from it when it occurs.

Take care of yourselves, friends. The Creator of Heaven and Earth loves you; you are worth whatever it takes to be well.

As for me, I trust in the Lord. I will be glad and rejoice in your love,     for you saw my affliction     and knew the anguish of my soul. - Psalm 31:6b-7, NIV
Resources: GoodTherapyPsychology Today