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Stress is Social: Compassion Fatigue and Self-Care

The role of stress and empathy in a pastor’s ministry
by Faith+Lead | December 22, 2020

By Eric J. Moody

In 2007 I was just starting my career as a social psychologist. I had recently graduated and planned to be a researcher studying shared emotions—for example, contagious laughter. It is so easy to laugh when others are laughing (sitcoms use laugh-tracks for a reason). However, I was given an opportunity that ended up changing my career path considerably. I was asked by a CPE Supervisor to give a talk to her students about compassion fatigue.  

Her students were struggling to cope with their work because they were constantly surrounded by stressful situations as they worked with patients and their families. Many of these patients were facing end of life issues or terrifying critical illness. Through their work, most of the students were overwhelmed, exhausted and in some cases, ready to quit their program! This is exactly what compassion fatigue is—it encompasses feelings of helplessness, isolation, numbness or avoidance, and persistent physiological arousal (sweaty palms, increased blood pressure, and etc.) that occurs as a result of providing care to others. Basically, the stress of caring for others can become so overwhelming that caregivers are no longer able to cope themselves. 

In the process of giving that talk, I discovered that compassion fatigue, and more to the point, the stress that leads to compassion fatigue is far more complex than I originally thought. Specifically, what surprised me the most was that stress is really a social thing. That is, stress emerges not just from events that happen directly to us, but also through our interaction with other people who are stressed themselves. This happens because of how our brains work, through neurological and psychological mechanisms, which you can learn more about in this short PBS clip about the neurology of empathy. The point is we pick up the stress of others and feel that just as powerfully as if it were our own. 

Given this, it became clear to me that if we ignore the social aspects of stress, we are far more likely to end up getting consumed by stress so that it turns into compassion fatigue. That was a powerful revelation that changed my career path. I ended up focusing my work on the stress that families of children with disabilities face. Every year since that first talk, I have built on that lecture, and use it to talk with my own students (clinical psychologists in training). 

Now, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic downturn, political and social division, remote schooling, a reckoning with racism and systemic social disadvantage, and all the uncertainty that we collectively face, stress is more common than any of us want. Further, the social aspects of stress are probably affecting us all, perhaps without our awareness. For instance, parish ministers are confronted with new challenges as they try to serve their parishes. Congregants are asking hard questions, suffering in ways no one could have anticipated, and seeking comfort from their pastors like never before. You too, are being impacted by social stress and the last thing anyone wants is for it to turn into full blown compassion fatigue. 

The type of parish counseling that ministers are doing during the COVID crisis, is probably unlike anything you would have ever anticipated. And as a result, this may put you in a similar situation to those CPE students I talked with back in 2007. You may be feeling overwhelmed, scared, uncertain, anxious or any range of emotions as a result of what your parishioners are feeling, which can compound your own stress. This is through no fault of your own or your congregants. It is simply how humans being work, and it is based on a very good and important process—empathy. While empathy is typically thought of as a good thing, it does have some negative consequences in highly stressful situation, which I describe below. First, however, a little more on where stress comes from and our ability to cope with it. 

Stress and Coping

Stress is all over the place. This may seem self-evident, but what may not be as obvious is what this means for our ability to cope with stressors. Humans are actually pretty good at coping with stress. Sure, there are lots of really bad things happening right now, but really bad things have been happening throughout history. In fact, when I first started lecturing on this topic, I pointed out all the bad things that were going on at the time: the Iraq and Afghan wars, political division, terrorism, and so on. Literally every single year since then, I have been able to add yet another horrible thing to the list: tsunamis, earthquakes, nuclear disasters, mass shootings, police shootings, COVID-19, injustice, riots, seclusion, economic downturns, and more. The natural history of stress is long and built into who we are as human beings. While we confront social upheaval, inequities, isolation, and loss related to the COVID pandemic, it may be difficult to keep in mind that stress is nothing new. But the good news is that we have biological and psychological tools that allow us to cope with those challenges. That doesn’t make any of it easy, but we can cope. 

The problem arises when we are exposed to long term stress. And right now, we are all in a period where the long-term exposure to stress is far more likely. The longer this pandemic drags out, and the more negative events occur, the more likely that our coping strategies will no longer work. When this happens, it can have severe physical consequences. This can include a weakened immune system, more infections, increased risk of obesity, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, increased risk of cancers, memory problems, and many more. 

The point is not to scare you with all the horrible things that can happen, but rather to show that ignoring our stress is done at our own peril. Moreover, while we all have a personal reaction to our collective stressors, most of us are unaware of indirect sources of stress that we may be exposed to by virtue of our vocation. Our bodies don’t care where the stress comes from; stress is stress. 

Social Stress and Professional Caregivers

Professional caregivers (including parish ministers) can get to the point that they can’t deal with other people’s stress anymore. I mentioned compassion fatigue earlier, but this basic idea goes by many names such as burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and vicarious trauma. There are some nuances among these concepts, but they are very similar. All essentially describe how we can indirectly pick up the negative emotions of others. Compassion fatigue is not an official diagnosis, but many professionals say that they identify with this and report symptoms similar to post traumatic stress (which is an official diagnosis). This includes things like hypersensitivity to emotional situations, eating problems, sleeping problems, irritability, depression, anxiety, physiological arousal (increased heart rate and blood pressure, etc.), flat affect, social detachment, and even spiritual detachment. The good news is that all these symptoms are very treatable and can be managed. You just need to actually manage them, which is where it gets tricky. 

The reason management is tricky is that compassion fatigue, in part, comes from our ability to understand others’ perspectives, emotions, and experiences. This is also known as empathy. Humans have a remarkable capacity for empathy, and it happens automatically. We don’t have to think about it; our brains just do it. That is an excellent thing for people in caring professions, as it can help you understand what your parishioners are experiencing, which helps you help them. But that ability to put yourself in others’ shoes has some risk. If your parishioners are suffering and you feel what they feel, experience what they experience, suffer what they suffer, this can lead to compounding stress above and beyond what you are experiencing yourself. Furthermore, the closer your parishioners’ pain is to your own, the stronger this process is. For example, if you just lost a loved one to COVID, and are working with a parishioner who also lost someone, this can trigger your memories of the event and make compassion fatigue more likely. Our brains are really good at putting ourselves in the shoes of people, and when we have shared experiences the impact of that is even stronger. This is the power of empathy. You don’t want to turn off your empathy; however, be sure to watch for the subtle creep of compassion fatigue, especially if you have similar experiences as your parishioners. 

So, it is important to think about all the sources of stress that you encounter in your life. Be sure to think about things that affect you directly, as well as what you experience by interacting with your parishioners. Remember there is a social side to stress. You can also get a better sense of where you are with your own compassion fatigue by taking the Professional Quality of Life Scale. This is not a diagnostic tool, but it can be helpful in giving you a sense of where you are right now. 

In the second part of this article, I will cover some practical tips that can help you better manage the stress you pick up from others. While none of this is meant to be a fix-all, hopefully some of these tips will help you manage your own stress while remaining an effective parish minister in these challenging times. 

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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