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Self-Care for the Tired Therapist: Coping with Compassion Fatigue

July 22nd, 2022


Are you a mental health professional? Are you struggling with compassion fatigue? If this is a yes, you have come to the right place. Most mental health professionals, at some point in their careers, come across compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue as defined by the American Institute of Stress is “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from consequences of traumatic events.” In simple terms, it is the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others. It is marked by exhaustion and desperation.

This exhaustion occurs due to the inability to manage stress. If it is not managed well, compassion fatigue can lead to secondary traumatic stress. Secondary traumatic stress occurs when an individual hears about a traumatic experience of another such as from a patient or client. This secondary traumatic stress can haunt a mental health professional and lead to intrusive thoughts and irrational beliefs. It is important to grasp compassion fatigue when it does occur.

Compassion Fatigue Warning Signs

Compassion Fatigue Warning Signs

So how can one grasp onto the onset of compassion fatigue you ask?

Here are some warning signs of compassion fatigue:

  • Reduced feelings of empathy.
  • Feelings of helplessness or emptiness during mental health work.
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies you enjoy in your free time.
  • Increased emotions- sadness, anger, anxiety.
  • Sleep disturbances such as nightmares.
  • Wanting to self-isolate.
  • Neglect of personal self-care.
  • Difficulty with attention and decision-making.
  • Feeling numb to emotions and detached from emotional regulation.
  • Physical symptoms- nausea, headaches, body aches, dizziness.

Self-Care and Coping Skills

If you do notice any of these signs, there are some coping skills that can be utilized to manage compassion fatigue.

Some of these are:

  • Practice mindfulness throughout your workday. It is important to practice awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and physical being.
  • Practice breathing exercises, such as diaphragm breathing or the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, to help control any increased emotions such as sadness, anger, or anxiety.
  • Instill a strong self-care routine. As mental health professionals, it is important to care for oneself after a long day of work. Focus on eating healthy, engaging in physical activity, committing to a sleep cycle, and doing things that you enjoy doing.
  • Set aside some daily activities to commit to. This can range from hobbies to errands.
  • Take self-care breaks between sessions. Give yourself an hour for lunch to wind down. Avoid doing work during these breaks.
  • Reach out for support. This can be a co-worker, supervisor, friend, family member, or a support group. Do engage in finding a healthy support system.
Setting Emotional Boundaries

Setting Emotional Boundaries

Another factor that mental health professionals can work on is establishing emotional boundaries to help cope with compassion fatigue or prevent it. Setting emotional boundaries means learning to put one’s mental health first.

As mental health professionals, we are able to remind clients about this easily, but fail to do so for ourselves. It is important to understand when to draw emotional boundaries.

For example, if a client expresses a reschedule of an appointment on a Thursday night at the same time as your dinner date, it is okay to say no. This no can help you say yes to spending time with a loved one, eating good food, and putting your mental health first.

Know When to "Turn Off" Work

Know When to "Turn Off" Work

Finally, the last factor that mental health professionals can implement is establishing a healthy work/life balance. This can be done by focusing on routine. During/ post the COVID-19 pandemic it has been quite difficult for many professionals to do this because of work and personal life occurring in one setting. It is nice to implement some activities that signify the end of a workday such as a walk or a body shower.

Also, “turning off” your work can also be a strategy to create a boundary. Committing to an action as simple as turning your work devices off or shutting your office door to turn off work mode and prepare for self-care. Take a breather and go on and enjoy your day.

Written by: Khadija Manzoor, LPC

Clarity Clinic

At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff who specialize in therapy and psychiatry services. To learn more about how we can support your mental health, call Clarity Clinic at (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.

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