Compassion Fatigue: Hope in a Path Through
In the gap between pain and suffering we have a choice. There IS a path through.
I recently completed training to become a Certified Compassion Fatigue Professional. The program was developed by Dr. Eric Gentry, a recognized expert in all things compassion fatigue, and the material was eye opening.
First off, I realized I’ve spent many years misusing the term and I suspect many of us in the field have done the same. Someone has a bad attitude in the hospital? Must be compassion fatigue. Calling out sick all the time? Obviously it’s compassion fatigue. No passion for the work? Oh yeah, there’s that compassion fatigue again!
Almost 42 years on this crazy rock we call Earth and I’m still a total dufus. Learning every day! But I digress…
So let’s clear things up for us all. Here’s how psychologists define compassion fatigue:
Secondary Traumatic Stress + Burnout = Compassion Fatigue
You totally get it now, don’t you? Yeah, I didn’t at first either. I’ll explain.
1) Secondary Traumatic Stress: A dog escapes the backyard and runs out into the street getting hit by a car. The injuries are significant and a good Samaritan rushes him into your hospital. You can see how traumatized the witness is and how much pain the dog is enduring.
Another example – a close client of yours loses their spouse to cancer. You’ve cared for their cat for 15 years and the next time she is brought in for a check-up the owner breaks down in tears, spending 20 minutes in the exam room sharing the pain of their loss with you.
And one more – a favorite patient of yours, a 3 year old lab, lives in a home with a 2 year old child. One day the child grabs the dog by the ears and aggressively yanks on them. The dog tries to escape, but can’t, and bites the child in the face causing significant disfiguring damage to the child. The parents are distraught and rehome the dog. When you next see them with their cat they tell you of this, tears in their eyes.
All of these are examples of events that can cause secondary traumatic stress. None of these things directly happened to you and you were not in any direct physical danger. However, by bearing witness to these traumas, your body, often unbeknownst to you, reacts to the stress of the situation as if you had experienced it firsthand.
2) Burnout: Simply put, burnout is the condition that occurs when the perceived demands of our circumstances are chronically outweighed by our perceived resources with which to meet those demands.
It turns out working in a caregiving field like veterinary medicine is hard. Shocker, I know. When empathetic human beings become caregivers they open themselves up to secondarily experiencing the pain of others (humans and otherwise). This is an unavoidable truth of our field.
For some this unavoidable truth suggests an inevitable end – that our resources for coping with the pain we witness will eventually run out. They are wrong.
For caregivers, pain IS indeed inevitable. Suffering, however, is not. In the gap between pain and suffering we have a choice. There IS a path through.
I’m particularly interested in helping others develop tools for preventing compassion fatigue from ever setting in. Positive psychology and related fields are ripe with evidence based interventions for cultivating psychological resilience and I have dedicated my career to offering these tools to the masses. The good news is so many tools exists – and they work! Seeing this fills me with hope.
A full and fulfilling career in veterinary medicine requires as much skill in caring for oneself as in caring for others. Perhaps it’s time we begin teaching them both, side by side.
- Written by Josh Vaisman