THEY say no good deed goes unpunished but experts believe our well-placed intentions could be doing more harm than good.
Studies have revealed a growing number of us are suffering from compassion fatigue.
It's when we hit a wall and our empathy resources become all tapped out.
One study by MHA found, understandably considering the pandemic, that healthcare workers were in the highest category of those suffering from compassion fatigue, accounting for 52%.
But it's not just those on the frontline feeling the draining effects of too much empathy.
“I've seen more and more clients with compassion fatigue, especially over the last couple of years,” explains life coach and author of How To Do You, Jacqueline Hurst (jacquelinehurst.com).
“Covid has definitely increased the amount of people who have compassion fatigue as most of us found ourselves supporting those around us and even strangers, perhaps at the cost of our own mental health.”
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RUNNING ON EMPTY
“Compassion fatigue is a psychological term used to describe emotional or physical exhaustion leading to a limited ability to empathise or feel compassion for others,” Jade Thomas, psychotherapist at Private Therapy Clinic (theprivatetherapyclinic.co.uk), explains.
“Although it's typically known to develop from exposure to trauma in individuals, many people don’t realise that just observing others suffering from consequences of stressful situations can also lead to compassion fatigue.
“This might include talking to a loved one who has recently lost their job or talking to a friend who recently lost a family member – this constant exposure to distress can lead to an individual experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue as well as feelings of losing hope and optimism.”
While it's normal to feel down about circumstances out of our control, showing constant compassion and empathy can prove to be physically and emotionally costly.
Feeling helpless, overwhelmed, exhausted, detached, anxious and irritable are some of the entry level symptoms of compassion fatigue, which can quickly develop into difficulty concentrating or making decisions, as well as sleep disturbances and withdrawing from your social life.
“I've also seen a lot of physical symptoms in clients as well, like headaches, nausea, upset stomach and dizziness,” Jacqueline adds.
“It doesn't take long before our work and personal life starts to become impacted as platonic and romantic relationships can also experience conflict as a result of us just not being able to give any more emotionally.”
Compassion fatigue isn’t that different to reaching burnout at work, but is specifically a side effect of helping others.
Although you don't have to be Florence Nightingale to be at risk.
“Anyone can become at risk of developing compassion fatigue regardless of their profession or psychological history,” Jade explains.
“You may have even already experienced it but were unaware of what it was.
6 ways to combat compassion fatigue
Jacqueline's top tips for being your own support system while helping others:
1. Practise mindfulness throughout the day
It's important to be conscious as to what you are thinking and to make sure the thoughts you have are the ones that help you feel good, not inferior or unhappy.
When you start to feel anxious, help yourself calm down by focusing on your breath and slowing down your breathing rate.
3. Find perspective
If you feel overwhelmed and out of control, take a moment to think about what you do have control over and what you can change.
Maybe we cannot change the ‘situation’ but we can change our thoughts around it.
4. Establish a good self-care routine
This includes eating healthily, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep.
We are not taught how to do this, but self care is key in compassion fatigue recovery.
5. Set aside time for joy
Having a hobby or doing things you love is really important to bring your positivity levels up.
6. Reach out to others
Whether that’s friends, family or a wellness coach to share the load and stop those feelings from rattling around in your mind.
“You are more likely to become at risk of developing compassion fatigue if you are an individual who is often placed in a role of helping or supporting others.
“You could be that person people go to for advice, someone who people regard as a good listener, or even someone who tries to please others and keep people happy.
“Although these are all great qualities to have, it is important to ensure it doesn’t become too much, leading to you suffering as a result.
“A saying that comes to mind is: 'You can’t pour from an empty cup’, you need to ensure you are taking care of yourself first, before helping others.”
STRIKING A BALANCE
Thankfully you don't have to take back your good intentions or stop being kind to safeguard your own mental health.
By setting a few key boundaries and making time for self-care, Jade believes we can carry on our good deeds without compromising our happiness.
“It's really important to take time for self-reflection – whether that's alone or with a colleague, friend or even a therapist.
“Make sure to incorporate self-care and ‘pockets’ of downtime in your daily/ weekly routine to ensure your mind is getting a break from being on all the time.
“This might include taking time to eat well, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, regular exercise, mindfulness or meditation practice.
“Journaling is a great way to get your thoughts and feelings out onto paper or it could even be as simple as watching a favourite movie or TV show,” she suggests.
For the people-pleasers among us, setting clear boundaries may be a little trickier but practising saying ‘no’, asking for space and not over-committing yourself are vital for striking a healthy emotional balance.
“You can still be supportive to others but recognising when you're giving too much of yourself away is the sweet spot to keep it all together,” Jacqueline says.