When you spend so much of your time focusing on the wellbeing of others, it can feel as though their trauma becomes your trauma, in something known as secondary traumatic stress.

The populations we work with often have systematic barriers to accessing care and maintaining their own wellbeing. It can feel as though we are trying to plug a small hole in a sinking boat when our actions seem to have no lasting impact. This feeling of helplessness and anger at the seeming futility of your actions is called burnout.

These two factors together combine in compassion fatigue, a group of symptoms typically characterized by a reduced capacity for empathy towards those you serve. Compassion fatigue is a type of work-related stress common in the caring and protective professions.

Symptoms of Burnout Symptoms of secondary traumatic stress
  • Irritability
  • Reduced feelings of success
  • Indifference or disconnection
  • Cynicism
  • Depression
  • Excessive worry about yourself, loved ones, or colleagues
  • Wariness of every situation, expecting a traumatic outcome on every call
  • Increased startle response
  • Avoiding things that remind you of the stressor
  • Intrusive thoughts
Ways to address compassion fatigue
  • Take some time to figure out how you measure personal success.

  • Create a ritual for transitioning to work time and to off time. This could be something as simple as taking a moment to think as you put on or take off your uniform, but identifying your on-mode and off-mode can help you to leave work at work. 

  • Build resiliency through mindfulness, meaningful connection with loved ones, better sleep and physical wellbeing.

  • Ask for help developing better coping mechanisms when you need it, be it from a friend, loved one, a trusted colleague, or a mental health professional.

Professional Quality of Life Scale (Includes measures for compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress)

Understanding Compassion Fatigue: Tips for Disaster Responders 

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