Resiliency Training (Part 1): What is Compassion Fatigue?

- compassionToday’s post is the first part of a short series I’m beginning on the subject of building up your own mental resiliency. Before I really delve into the nuts and bolts of this subject, I want to spend some time just talking about compassion fatigue – what it is, how it ties into mental resiliency, and who it most often affects.

Compassion fatigue, as you might have already guessed, is the gradual loss of compassion a person has for others. It also goes by the name, “secondary traumatic stress disorder.” I think both names accurately describe the condition, but perhaps “secondary traumatic stress disorder” is just a little bit more accurate. You see, while trauma victims can, and many times do, experience compassion fatigue, it is more likely to affect the caretakers of trauma victims.

According to Wikipedia, compassion fatigue was first diagnosed in nurses during the 1950’s, which actually makes perfect sense when you consider the causes of the condition. Imagine the following: imagine you are caring for a loved one who has endured a traumatic injury. To complicate matters even more, the prognosis is not good. You and your loved one both realize they are not going to recover; in fact, their condition will most likely worsen. On top of it all, they are in constant suffering.

Now, the only thing you can do in this situation, aside from tending to their basic needs, is show them as much compassion as you can. But, this isn’t a single hospital visit we’re talking about. This isn’t mailing them a box of chocolates and a get-well card, or shedding a few sympathetic tears. Day in and day out, probably for the rest of their life, you have to show real empathy for this person. No matter how loving and good-natured you might be, that type of caregiving will start to take its toll on anyone.

This is where resiliency training comes into play. Imagine two people are carrying a bag of groceries for an indefinite length of time – basically, they have to carry the groceries until their arms give out. One of these people is a bodybuilder, and the other one is an accountant who’s never touched a weight in his life. It’s not difficult to predict who is going to be able to carry the groceries longer. Nevertheless, even with all his strength and muscles, at some point the bodybuilder is going to wear out.

Training your mind to be more resilient may not make you impervious to compassion fatigue, but it will certainly give you the strength you need to be more compassionate, more often, without easily fatiguing.


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