Understanding Compassion Fatigue

By Kirsten Antony, R.N. ~

Compassion fatigue is a subject that has become increasingly relevant and is an important health issue to be aware of. It can affect those in caregiving professions as well as empathetic persons caring for other individuals in any capacity. Polina Rikoun Ph.D. received her doctorate degree at Harvard University in Comparative Literature and continued her training in holistic wellness with various yoga and meditation schools. Her business, “Breathe and Be Well” and healing program entitled, “Uplifting Compassion” are designed to address compassion fatigue and find holistic balance in life. Below is my interview with Polina Rikoun.

KA: How do you define compassion fatigue?  How does that differ from burnout?
PR: Yes, these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but there is a difference.
Compassion fatigue is a sense of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, resulting from exposure to the suffering of others. If we do not regulate the ways we empathize with others’ pain, we put a lot of stress on our own nervous system, and it catches up with us.
Burnout can be caused by compassion fatigue, but also by any other work-related stress, for example, pressure to perform without sufficient resources.

In other words, compassion fatigue can lead to burnout, but so can many other work related pressures.

KA: What are the symptoms of compassion fatigue?
PR: Current research identifies three types of symptoms: physical, emotional, and mental. Physical symptoms include constant fatigue, muscle aches and pains, headaches, digestion problems, and sleep disturbances. Emotionally, compassion fatigue can show up as depression, anxiety, irritability, hopelessness, or numbing. It is accompanied by poor concentration and persistent thoughts that one is helpless and powerless to help, and that there is no point in even trying. Very often, one’s performance at work suffers, as well as personal relationships, and overall quality of life.

Compassion fatigue affects the whole person, which is why I take a holistic approach to preventing and reversing it in my program.

KA: Many people associate compassion fatigue with those that work in the health care field.  What other occupations are strongly linked with compassion fatigue?
PR: Anyone who witnesses and empathizes with the suffering of others on a regular basis can be at risk for compassion fatigue. This includes a very wide range of professions, for example, fire fighters, police officers, teachers, the clergy, anyone doing humanitarian work.

Some people have heightened abilities to empathize, and become sponges for other people’s pain. They can develop compassion fatigue even through interacting with people under ordinary stress levels. This is how I developed compassion fatigue working in higher education. Even though I rarely witnessed severe distress among my students and colleagues, I unknowingly absorbed their smaller, daily stresses, and it accumulated over time.

KA: You and I both have gone through the experience of compassion fatigue.  You as a professor at the University of Denver and I as a Registered Nurse.  We both seem to have found more balance in our lives by switching gears and focusing on teaching and helping others through holistic healing modalities.  What holistic health modalities do you incorporate into your practice and what are the positive outcomes you have witnessed with your clients?
PR: On my journey to wellness, I discovered that it was vitally important to cultivate a strong connection to myself, a deep awareness of how my body, mind, and emotions “played together.” This empowered me to recognize the moments when I mirrored and absorbed other people’s suffering, and to stop myself from doing it.

One of the key elements of my program is helping my clients develop a powerful, positive connection to themselves. I offer a variety of modalities that cultivate it: therapeutic yoga, energy work, mindfulness coaching, and a deep relaxation practice called “Yogic Sleep” (Yoga Nidra).

My clients report many powerful positive changes in their lives. It all begins with deep, inner shifts: greater clarity, peace of mind, strong personal boundaries, greater sense of purpose and self-worth. These inner transformations empower them to make external life changes they desire: to get their dream job, become physically fit, strengthen their marriage, find a truly supportive romantic partnership, to name a few.

KA: I make house calls and often visit with seniors that have their T.V. channels tuned into the news 24-7.  I would think that even if someone isn’t a caregiver, they could experience compassion fatigue just from witnessing some of the horrible news stories we are exposed to by watching T.V. What are your thoughts on this topic?
PK: I agree with you that uncontrolled, constant influx of upsetting news stories can undermine our well-being. If watching the news makes us feel hopeless and helpless, then it puts us at risk for compassion fatigue. Limiting our exposure can be helpful, but it is only part of the solution. Even one truly distressing story can impact us for days, and yet, few of us would chose to know nothing about current events.

My personal solution is to remind myself that I am already doing everything I can to contribute to a cause that matters the most to me. Supporting health and wellness is my life’s work. There are myriads of other problems that I can do nothing about, but there are other people devoting themselves to that. I am not alone. I am one of countless many. Together, we make a difference. I find a lot of support in giving myself permission to just do my part and let go of the rest.

KA: You have a program entitled “Uplifting Compassion” in the form of a workshop, 6-week program, and maintenance program.  Can you tell us some of the topics you cover and some tips on how to incorporate balance into our lives if we think we are experiencing compassion fatigue?
PR: It is really important to think of self-care not as isolated actions, but as the total system of how we work and live. If we have ingrained habits that put us at risk for compassion fatigue, and we act upon these habits 24/7, then getting a massage for an hour a week will not make a dent.

First, we need to identify specific risk factors, internal and external, that impact us the most. The next step is to develop resilience skills that boost our resistance to these particular risks. The final step is to put our new skills to use on a daily basis, so that we develop habits that support us instead of depleting us.

These steps are exactly what we cover in my program. Some people can do all this deep self-work on their own, but this is a very tall order. That is why I created “Uplifting Compassion,” to help professional helpers design their own, personalized, sustainable, inspiring ways of working—a foundation for a life-long, thriving career.

If you would like to learn more about Polina Rikoun’s upcoming “Uplifting Compassion” program and/or 2-hour workshop scheduled for January 10th, please visit www.polina-rikoun.com.

Kirsten Antony

Kirsten Antony

Kirsten Antony is a Registered Nurse and holistic health care practitioner. Kirsten is certified in many healing modalities and offers her services in the Metro Denver area at a variety of facilities as well as making house calls. For more information please visit: www.kirstenantony.com or call 303-668-8992.