Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 2, 2008
Treat compassion fatigue – relaxation, relationships, rest
Psychologist advises people to identify issues, take care of yourself
By VIRGINIA BATTISTE
Special to the WCR
The same qualities that make a person a compassionate, caring individual in a helping profession can also mean a person is at risk for compassion fatigue.
Because a person cares so much, they are vulnerable to investing too much of themselves in their work with adverse consequences.
Patricia Kostouros, an instructor in the department of child and youth studies at Mount Royal College, Calgary, and a registered psychologist in private practice, was speaking at a workshop May 24 at the FCJ Centre in Calgary, sponsored by the Health Care Apostolate of the Calgary Diocese.
Qualify the dilemma
Having spent much of her professional career dealing with people in crisis, whether with violent young offenders or in the field of family violence, Kostouros knows from experience what she is talking about. She maintains there is a difference between compassion fatigue and burnout.
"Compassion fatigue is the stress that results from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.
"Burnout is not about a person themselves. Rather, it has to do with issues in the workplace that contribute to unmanageable stress that the person cannot necessarily change or impact."
A person who is suffering from compassion fatigue might experience an array of emotional responses like increased negativity, a lower frustration tolerance, an increase in outbursts of anger or rage, or self-destructive behaviour.
It might also be characterized by depression, loss of hope, feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, and might lead to a diminished interest in normal activities.
"Compassion fatigue is a by-product of caring but is also an indicator that the person has some vulnerabilities that need to be addressed."
Burnout, though, rather than being personal, is related to the workplace. It is job-related strain caused by the place of employment and might come from a variety of factors.
Kostouros says issues with co-workers that go unresolved - overwork, or a vague job description that leaves a person uncertain about what they are to do - can be factors in burnout. So can being micro-managed, leaving no room for personal incentive, or discrepancies between personal values and the philosophy of the organization.
Symptoms of burnout can be seen in attitudes like, "I don't matter," feeling de-personalized or detached from work, or not caring about what happens at work.
"In a workplace where there seems to be no control over the job, or the person feels overworked, or that the resources for doing the job are not provided, it might be a reality check on the person's risk for burnout. They need to develop strategies to deal with the situation or make changes."
Kostouros says the key to change, in either circumstance, is being self-aware and implementing good self-care strategies.
She recommends asking two questions to get under the surface of what is happening and why: "What value is being attacked, or what belief is being challenged, here? And, what is this really about for me?"
"A person needs to get to their core beliefs and values if they are experiencing something that bothers them, to understand why they are being bothered. If you can make meaning out of something, it can lead to change. Making meaning out of it, and understanding the core value, is the key."
When looking at your own vulnerabilities, and identifying where you are most susceptible, there are two other questions that need to be answered, she says, "What do I get out of this?" And, "What makes me want or need that?"
Take the ABC therapy
From Kostouros' viewpoint, dealing with the challenges of compassion fatigue or burnout is as simple as ABC.
A stands for Awareness which involves knowing yourself, asking the tough questions about your own beliefs and values, recognizing the resources available to you, and paying attention to your own body.
B stands for Balance, in work, play and rest. She is careful to define "play" as any sort of activity, while rest means being still and quiet, and not being actively engaged in anything, even reading. It means prayer or meditation, and being silent.
C is Connection, with others, who you can talk to, so you realize you are not the only one dealing with this, and you feel understood and validated. It also means recognizing a person is connected to something larger than just themselves and their immediate world. The best answer, she says is found in the Three R's - rest, relaxation and relationship.