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    When Your Compassion Hits a Wall

    If you work in a field in which your job is to help others heal either physically or mentally, you are spending a great deal of time helping others work through tough things. Maybe you don’t do this for a living, but you are the friend everyone goes to for emotional support. Either way, you could very easily find yourself in a state of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is the physical, emotional, and psychological impact on those who spend their days helping others. When you expend a great deal of energy taking on the trauma and stress of others, it can become very overwhelming.

    What are the symptoms of compassion fatigue? Symptoms include feeling overwhelmed by demands, feeling emotionally numb, loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, reduced feelings of empathy, feeling helpless to the individual who needs your assistance, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, a desire to withdraw, increase in personal conflict, or difficulty making decisions. Now is probably a good time to take a really big, deep breath. You love your job; you chose this line of work because you have a desire to help others. You love your friends, and you feel honored they trust you to be their support person. This doesn’t mean you don’t hit a wall from time to time. If you find yourself experiencing some of the symptoms listed above, it is time to take your own advice. Don’t ignore the warning signs.

    One of the first things you can do if you find yourself experiencing compassion fatigue is to use some mindfulness practices. Use breath work and slow your breathing rate down. When we find ourselves full of anxiety after listening to others describe their own, we need to slow our heart rate and our breath to calm our bodies and our minds. We may often find ourselves in fight, flight, or freeze mode simply from listening to others describe their trauma. Box breathing is a great tool to use anywhere when we are overly anxious. If you work in the therapy or medical field, you are probably all too familiar with using breathing techniques to reduce stress. In case you aren’t familiar, box breathing includes taking a deep breath in for 5 seconds, holding your breath for 5 seconds, exhaling for 5 seconds, and holding your breath again for 5 seconds. You can envision tracing a box while breathing, distracting your thoughts away from whatever has left you anxious. Breathe in for 5 seconds, draw a line up. Hold for 5 seconds, draw a line across the top of the box. Exhale for 5 seconds and draw a line down the other side. Hold again for 5 seconds and draw a line across the bottom of the box. This should improve your heart rate and bring your breathing rate back to normal.

    Stay aware of your thoughts during the day. Practice mindfulness and stay present. When you notice that anxiety thermometer beginning to rise, use your breathing technique or another relaxation skill such as the 54321 method to bring yourself back to center. For those who are not familiar, the 54321 method is taking a pause to look around your space and name 5 things you can see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This is a distraction from negative thoughts, and can help you regain focus, decreasing symptoms of anxiety.

    If your job includes lending your ear to others, listening to the news can add to your stress. Unfortunately, these days the news is full of sad or disappointing stories. We humans can only take so much negativity before we simply shut down. Take a break from the news or social media for a while if you find this is adding to your anxiety. Step away from the water cooler as well. Listening to Sheila’s rant about her fight with the president of the PTA might be raising your cortisol level more than you realize. We have a physical reaction to our own emotions as well as the emotions of others; when someone is angry and yelling about her terrible service at the Olive Garden last night, it can release stress hormones in you too. Dismiss yourself with an “I have to take this call” excuse.

    Do you have a good self-care routine? We know the term self-care is cliché these days, but that doesn’t change the fact that you do need to take care of your physical and mental health. Self-care can look different for different people. Make sure you are setting aside time for things that bring you joy and reduce your stress, whatever that may be. There are 5 main components to self-care. These include healthy nutrition, proper rest (a consistent sleep routine), relaxation, exercise, and socialization. When it comes to socialization, make sure you are surrounding yourself with people who fill your cup, not empty it. Friendship goes both ways; you listen, and you are listened to. You support, and you receive support. Make sure your social activities leave you feeling refreshed and re-energized.

    Don’t forget about the circle of control. Stop and examine what is in your control, and what is not. Everyone needs reminding of this from time to time! Whether it is your job to listen to others or if you are the go-to friend for advice, remember the outcome of their situation is not in your control. Whether or not they take the steps they need to improve their situation is also not in your control. Focus on what is in your control- that being your own thoughts, your own self-care, your boundaries, how you treat others, and how you treat yourself.

    Lastly, give yourself some grace. Remember that you are human, and you experience all the same emotions as those you are trying to help. At times, what they tell you might stir up some old traumatic feelings of your own. Take a moment to consult with a colleague, or find a good therapist for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Let’s all take another deep breath together! In through the nose, out through the mouth!

    You. Are. Amazing.