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Crucial Strategies for Reducing Compassion Fatigue

Resources and tips for ministry leaders
by Faith+Lead | December 23, 2020

By Eric J. Moody

In the first of this two-part series, I described how stress is social; we can catch the emotions of others. When our jobs require us to spend a lot of time around people who are stressed or traumatized, we are more likely to feel what they are feeling, which can develop into compassion fatigue. 

Now I am going to describe several things that you can do to protect yourself from compassion fatigue and stress in general. You can do some or all of these, and adapt these tips as needed. However, remember that none of them will make the stress or trauma of our current situation vanish. They may help you get through the hardest parts of this, but if you ever feel like you can’t take it anymore, contact a mental health provider to help you. With that, here are some concrete things that you can do.

Set time limits and boundaries

The more you are around other people’s trauma, the more likely you are to develop compassion fatigue yourself. For instance, if your job is to spend all day counseling people who have recently been traumatized, your brain will empathize with all of these negative experiences without you thinking about it. So, by limiting the overall amount of time you spend with people who are highly stressed, the better off you will be. This might not be easy right now. However, setting limits for your time can help. For example, you might stop taking work calls after 5 p.m., or you might give yourself 30 minutes of recovery time for every 30 minutes you spend with someone in crisis. You can set boundaries so that your work doesn’t consume all of your time.

Work satisfaction and outcomes

The meaning we place on our work has a remarkable capacity to protect us from compassion fatigue. The basic idea here is that the more satisfied you are with what you do, and the more you perceive that the outcomes are meaningful, the less like you are to experience compassion fatigue. A good illustration of this comes from couple of research findings. One study found the rate of compassion fatigue among ER nurses to be 86%. Another study found that the rate of secondary traumatic stress for hospice workers was 32%. It makes sense to many people that the ER nurses would have high rates of compassion fatigue, but why would hospice workers have a lower rate of secondary trauma? Their jobs, after all, require them to confront death every day. However, a key feature of hospice is its focus on death-with-dignity. ER nurses confronting COVID must dash from patient to patient without a break and may watch multiple people die without having the time to comfort them. The job of hospice workers, on the other hand, is to help their clients in ways that mean something to them. This is the process of meaning-making.

The more you can find meaning and satisfaction in what you do, the better off you will be. In fact, this is something that ministers are uniquely poised to do. Much of seminary is about finding meaning. So, rely on this training as much as you can. This doesn’t mean you have to turn every negative experience into something positive, but you can focus on how to develop some sense of meaning in what you do and what is happening. This helps in the long run.

Self-care

Lots of caring professions encourage “self-care,” and I do too. However, self-care does not mean eating three pints of ice cream, splurging on an extravagant vacation, or some other outrageous self-indulgence. Caring for one’s self is not about distracting you from your pain, but rather finding ways to proactively process what you are dealing with, so that it does not consume you.  Of course, this can take lots of forms and is very personal. However, self-care that involves staying socially connected to those you care about is especially important. Even though this is hard with much of the nation on lock-down, finding ways to be with those you love is critical. Just be sure that you aren’t making every conversation about the struggles you face.

And as I mentioned above, if you find yourself in need of additional support, find it professionally. Compassion fatigue that emerges as a result of working with your parishioners is really no different than directly experienced trauma. Trauma therapy is highly effective. So, access those services if you need them. Remember, treatment works. 

Adherence to normality

Another useful step is to find little ways to adhere to normality, whatever your version of normal is. For example, when my children’s school moved to remote learning that started at 9 AM, it would have been easy to let them sleep in until right before their Zoom sessions started. However, we made sure that they continued to get to bed at a reasonable hour, got up at 6 AM, had breakfast, and dressed for school. We even got in the habit of making them go outside to play for 30 minutes right before their classes started, which mimicked in-person school where they would play on the playground before the bell rang. The more you can find ways to connect to your version of normal, the less disrupted your life will feel. 

Laughter

Laughter is another remarkably good tool to combat compassion fatigue. It does a couple of things. First it is a brief respite from thinking about the troubles you face. Second, it physiologically counteracts your body’s stress hormones. Interestingly, whatever gets you laughing works equally well. If you like stand-up comedy, then go for it. Jokes? Sure. You can even capitalize on contagious laughter! Just like being around stressed people creates stress in you, being around laughing people can lead to you laughing, even if there is no good reason for it. In fact, one of my favorite pick-me-ups is to watch laughing babies on YouTube. Seriously. Type in “laughing babies” and watch a few clips. It is hard not to start laughing yourself. The contagiousness of laughter has even been used to create a sort of social exercise called Laughter Yoga (John Cleese gives a short overview in this video). The idea is that a bunch of people get together, start fake laughing at each other, and then before long, it turns into real, contagious laughter that takes over the whole group. And more importantly, it can help you avoid compassion fatigue. 

Exercise

Another useful tool is exercise. Whatever you like to do to stay active is fine. The key is to make it routine. Exercise works because of the same reasons as laughter: it gives your brain a break from thinking about your troubles and directly counteracts stress-related hormones. In fact, there is evidence that strenuous exercise at least 5 times per week is at least as effective as front-line antidepressants. It also has the added benefit of improving all sorts of health outcomes like your sleep, cardiovascular health, and weight. In times like these when it is so easy to let exercise fall out of your routine, it is more important than ever to build it back into your life. 

Engage in rituals

Engaging in rituals, of any sort, is a surprisingly powerful way to counteract compassion fatigue. Through rituals, we are able to connect to our culture, engage socially, regulate our emotions, and directly counteract our stress response. When compassion fatigue starts affecting you, keep connected to the practices that are meaningful to you. These can be traditional practices like praying, liturgies, and ceremonies, or simple daily activities. Things like spending five minutes each morning looking out the window at the birds while drinking your coffee or taking a 5-minute time out with your loved one mid-day to reconnect can be remarkably helpful. I even heard of one person who started working from home and realized he missed the ritual of commuting to work. It seemed that the time he spent getting to work was when he mentally prepared for his workday. So, he created a virtual commute each morning where he stood in his kitchen for 15 minutes while drinking his travel mug of coffee, reading the paper, and holding onto the refrigerator door handle to mimic a handhold in the subway. Whatever your rituals are, just make sure they are meaningful and done intentionally. Don’t let other distractions get in the way. Treat your rituals with reverence, and they can improve your well-being.

Have strong personal and professional support networks 

When people think of support networks, they usually think of personal social support networks. These networks are very important, indeed! However, I always encourage my students to think about personal and professional networks separately. Personal networks are great at being there when you need someone to talk with about emotional issues. They are also great at keeping you connected more generally and getting your mind off your work. But they aren’t always good at providing support when it comes to work. They might not be experts in the things that you do, so they might not be able to help you develop solutions to challenges you face. Professional networks, on the other hand, are great for this. There are all sorts of communities of practice that you can join. And there is an added benefit that having these two systems will help you keep some boundaries between your personal and professional life. 

Know what does not work

As important as it is to acknowledge what helps, it is equally important to be aware of things that don’t work or might even make things worse. For example, keeping your struggles to yourself is not a great strategy. Not only does it isolate you from the support networks that can potentially help, it allows your brain to ruminate on the negative things you are experiencing. The more you do that, the worse things will get. Conversely, it is important to not expect that extreme emotional outbursts will solve your problems. This is often called catharsis, and it is the idea that expressing emotions (screaming, crying, laughing, whatever) will get the emotions out, and then you are done with them. Unfortunately, this is not how our brains work. Instead, the more you do this, the more your brain gets used to feeling those emotions. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t express emotions; just don’t expect that once you have expressed an emotion, that you are done with it. 

You really have to work through what you are feeling for there to be any progress. In fact, ruminating and reliving your traumas without working through what you are feeling can make compassion fatigue more likely. So, try to avoid things that trigger your emotions without an opportunity to process them. For example, watching the news nonstop can simply re-engage your trauma. So, take the time to turn off the TV for a while. Similarly, it is worth putting your phone away for a while. All the social media apps that people rely on can bombard you with negative information without any opportunity to make sense of it. And surprisingly, it can prevent you from engaging in socially meaningful ways. Taking a tech-break is great, but if you can moderate your tech-intake just like you would alcohol, you will be even better off.

Looking Ahead

The challenges that we all face right now can be overwhelming. Now that there are a couple of COVID vaccines available, there is hope that we can end this collective trauma soon. But we will be dealing with the aftermath of this pandemic for a long time. Parish ministers may be supporting their communities in ways they were never trained for. However, your role is more important than ever. It is critical that you take care of yourself so that you can keep being of service to your congregation. These tips are meant to help you manage this new reality; however, be aware that there is no magic remedy. This is still a time of great struggle. If you can find ways to protect yourself, you will be more likely to make it through this crisis without suffering more than you need to. 

About the Author
Eric J. Moody, PhD is a Research Professor, and Director of Research and Evaluation at the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities at the University of Wyoming. He is trained as a Social Psychologist, specializing in health care service delivery for those with disabilities. He is also Treasurer for the Collaborative for Faith and Disability through the Association of University Centers on Disability.

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