Counselors enter the mental health field because they want to help and support others. Sometimes, though, these strong feelings of empathy can be harmful for mental health professionals. Constantly caring for others puts you at risk of developing compassion fatigue, which can affect your own mental health and your ability to connect with clients. If you’re a therapist, you should understand what compassion fatigue is, why it happens, and what you can do to cope with it.
What Is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is a state of emotional stress or weariness that can develop after working closely with people who are suffering. It’s unfortunately common in therapists and others in helping professions.
A therapist needs to have a strong sense of empathy and compassion because this allows them to connect with clients and offer support. However, these qualities can also make counselors more vulnerable to emotional exhaustion. As a therapist, you listen to the struggles of others all day, which can take a toll on your mental health.
Here are some of the most common signs of compassion fatigue:
- Diminished feelings of empathy
- Inability to stop thinking about work
- Dreading going to work
- Difficulty sleeping
- Low mood, anger, or irritability
- Social isolation
- Lack of motivation
Therapists dedicate so much of their day to others that it can be difficult for them to recharge and focus on themselves. Compassion fatigue can be a short-term experience during a particularly stressful time, or it can be a long-term state of being that affects your practice.
Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout
Compassion fatigue and burnout are similar experiences, but they’re not exactly the same. Understanding the difference will help you recognize the feelings you’re facing.
Compassion fatigue in therapists is caused by absorbing clients’ emotional stress or trauma. Burnout happens when a professional feels detached, overwhelmed, or cynical about their work. This can happen for a number of reasons, and it isn’t always directly related to the emotional experiences of the clients. Sometimes, burnout happens when a therapist’s caseload is too big or when they don’t have the resources they need to offer adequate support.
Burnout often builds up gradually, but feelings of compassion fatigue can come and go depending on your current workload. In some cases, burnout can also affect your job performance more seriously. Many therapists still have a passion for their field while experiencing compassion fatigue, but burnout can significantly affect how much you care about the well-being of your clients.
If it goes unchecked, though, compassion fatigue can quickly lead to professional burnout. When you feel emotionally exhausted after working with your clients, it may seem like your only option is to detach from your job and stop putting emotional energy into it.
Tips for Coping With Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue is a complex and difficult issue that affects a large portion of therapists. Fortunately, it is possible to prevent or cope with compassion fatigue with self-care and self-reflection. Here are four tips for managing compassion fatigue:
1. Take Time for Yourself.
Compassion fatigue can happen when you devote all of your time and energy to others. To combat this, set aside time every day to dedicate only to yourself and self-care. Even if you only have a few minutes to spare, use this time to engage in a hobby, listen to your favorite song, or simply take some deep breaths.
2. Set Boundaries.
Sometimes, a therapist may have a hard time saying “no” because they’re so attuned to the needs of others. They may feel guilty for not being available all the time or not accepting every request that comes their way. They realize that others are struggling, and they want to do everything they can to help.
While this selflessness is admirable, it can also be detrimental to your emotional health. When you take on too many responsibilities or make yourself available at all hours, you never have time to detach from the stress of your work and practice self-care. Not having an “off switch” can quickly lead to mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion.
Designate certain times of your day for work and other times for your personal life. If you have family obligations on one night of the week, don’t miss out on them to schedule a client unless it’s an emergency. If possible, don’t answer non-emergency calls or emails after a chosen time.
3. Find Ways to Self-regulate.
There are many ways you can practice self-care outside of your therapy sessions, but you may also find yourself needing to regulate in the moment while you work with a client. This is especially true if you work with clients who have a trauma background. Hearing these heavy stories can be very difficult, and it is possible to become vicariously traumatized.
You can try out a few different tactics to find a strategy for self-regulation. Some counselors like to do a body scan by releasing muscle tension from their feet all the way up to their head. Others prefer taking some deep breaths to stay grounded. Another popular tool for self-regulation is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, which involves identifying five things you currently see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste.
4. Reach out for Help.
If you feel like compassion fatigue is affecting your emotional health or the quality of your work, you don’t have to deal with it on your own. You could reach out to a trusted colleague or a supervisor with your concerns. It’s likely that you know other professionals who have gone through a similar issue. If you’re not comfortable speaking with someone in your immediate circle, you could look for therapist support groups.
As a mental health professional, you understand the value of therapy. It’s very common for therapists to seek their own mental health treatment as a part of their self-care. For you to offer support to others through their hardships, you should be in a healthy emotional state yourself.
If your work as a therapist feels mentally or emotionally draining, seeing your own counselor may be valuable. Engaging in therapy as the client can help you identify the patterns in your job that are contributing to compassion fatigue and discover effective coping mechanisms to deal with the stress.
Compassion fatigue is a serious problem that affects many mental health professionals. Therapists are human, and their work is incredibly difficult. Compassion fatigue is not inescapable, though. With self-care, boundaries, and support from others, you can be fully present for your clients without bearing an emotional burden.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling offers mental health services to older adults. Our licensed counselors work with clients to address mental health disorders, grief, stress, and a variety of other concerns. If you or an elderly loved one is interested in therapy, contact us today.