One of the main reasons people become public health workers or disaster and emergency responders is to help people. However, such professionals often make an emotional investment in their jobs, and sometimes shoulder too much of the burden of or assume that they are immune to the effects of disasters.
This can produce a variety of misconceptions that are summarized below.
- I will fix the problem and save the world
- I am invincible
- I am responsible for outcomes
- If I care enough, everything will be okay
- People will appreciate everything I do
- I will have enough resources to fix things
- I know what I'm getting into
- Significant people in my life will support and approve my absence from our relationship while I invest in this compassionate mission
Having discussed the basics of stress, let us now focus on stress that is specific to disaster responders.
Signs and symptoms of stress can occur not only in survivors of a traumatic event, but also in those who are responding to the event and assisting survivors. This is particularly true in situations where the perceived danger is great, or where the event is unexpected (i.e., terrorist attack, pandemic, or natural disaster). Caregivers can experience stress in severe, ongoing, or repeated traumatic events.
This phenomenon is referred to as compassion fatigue - a state of stress produced by preoccupation with the trauma of a single victim or the cumulative traumas of clients.
Compassion fatigue can manifest itself in a number of ways. These manifestations can include re-experiencing traumatic events, avoiding or numbing oneself to reminders of the event, or the development of a persistent state of arousal.
Types of compassion fatigue include burnout, secondary trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Mental and emotional health is influenced both by your past experiences and current circumstances.
The sections below summarize many of the symptoms and other indicators of compassion fatigue. Another useful tool in identifying and assessing the severity of compassion fatigue is the Compassion Satisfaction/Fatigue Self-Test for Helpers (PDF).
Compassion fatigue can manifest in a variety of other ways including:
- Silencing response: When we are already emotionally overwhelmed, we find ways of silencing others' painful stories so that their pain doesn't add to our own trauma load. The silencing response is a reaction which guides a caregiver to redirect, shut down, minimize, or neglect the disturbing information brought by an individual to the caregiver.
- Arousal symptoms: Often related to PTSD, caregivers may feel constantly alert after a traumatic event. This is known as increased emotional arousal, and it can cause difficulty sleeping, outbursts of anger or irritability, and difficulty concentrating. They may find that they are constantly on guard and on the lookout for signs of danger.
- Physical symptoms: Compassion fatigue can also manifest in physical ailments, such as head, back, and/or muscle aches; insomnia and sleep disruptions; and loss of energy or fatigue.
Compassion fatigue can take a toll on many aspects of your life, from your ability to do your job effectively to influencing your personal life.
Common Effects of Compassion Fatigue
A simple way to deal with compassion fatigue can be summarized by the acronym HALT.
If you feel overwhelmed, take a moment to have a snack, decompress, check in with your support network, or take a nap.
Other tips for coping can be found in the RN.com article Compassion Fatigue: Tips for Coping. The article contains techniques for yourself, your professional environment, and your organization.