Compassion Fatigue

You’ve heard of “burnout,” right? Your work environment is making you miserable, so miserable that you feel unfulfilled, depleted of energy, stripped of all motivation to effect change in the workplace. If you’re a healthcare professional, undoubtedly, you know all too well about burnout. But then there’s “compassion fatigue.” While individuals working in any kind of job setting can experience burnout, compassion fatigue is unique to those exposed to trauma while working in a helping profession: nurses, firefighters, police. Because you’re in the helping profession, you feel the onus is on you to save peoples’ lives, to make them better, to alleviate their pain, so you sign up for extra shifts, and, if you’re a nurse, offer to take care of the sickest patients. But what happens when your patients have little, or no family support, or are constantly ringing the call bell, making demands (get me water, I need more pain meds, I need something to help me sleep)? You feel like Sisyphus – no matter how many times you push the boulder up the hill, it keeps rolling back down into your weakened arms. You’re worn down, irritable, angry. That’s compassion fatigue, when you can no longer muster the sympathy to care for your patients because you’ve been exposed to the same kinds of patients again and again, and have answered an uncountable number of call-bell dings, but the bells keep dinging, and you want to keep helping, but, at the same time, you want to run.

It’s worth noting, however, that compassion fatigue doesn’t necessarily mean individuals experiencing it lack compassion, not at all. They still care about their patients. Instead, as a nursing professor at the College of Nursing at University of Arizona says, compassion fatigue is more like feeling too “full,” and even suggests a different name for it: “emotional saturation.”

Not only are healthcare professionals at risk for compassion fatigue, though, family members caring for loved ones with, say, a traumatic brain injury or dementia, are at risk too. Even those who hear about another’s traumatic experience over and over again are affected. I bring these scenarios into the mix because, sadly enough, I suffered from compassion fatigue when I worked tirelessly to navigate my father’s emotional swings, and, as he slipped into Alzheimer’s, made sure he was safe at home because he had insisted he never be put in a nursing home. And I’m witnessing compassion fatigue again, as my husband and his siblings stumble then pick themselves each day, determined to keep their aging mother safe from the ravages of dementia.

But it is possible to care too much, so much that it hurts. When I say hurt, I mean really hurt, as in traumatized hurt. Being pre-occupied with others’ suffering can cause “secondary traumatic stress” for the helping individual. It’s not unusual to experiences symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: anxiety, hyper-vigilance, irritability, impatience, withdrawal, poor concentration, sleep disturbance, nightmares, the list goes on.

What’s the cure for compassion fatigue? Boundaries and self-care. In other words, set limits, say no even when you want to say yes, remind yourself to take time out, meditate, go for a walk, keep a journal, draw, listen to your favorite music, dance, do yoga, take a bath, read a novel, watch a funny movie. Watch the sun set. Watch the sun rise.

For more resources on how to evaluate whether or not you have compassion fatigue and how to prevent/treat it, go to compassion fatigue and healthy caregiving.

 

 

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Autobiography of my hungers: Rigoberto González

“Like many Mexican children, I cleaned the piedritas out of the uncooked beans before they went into the pot – my meal-prep duty to help my overwhelmed mother as she spun around in the kitchen. The process was simple, but time-consuming: a pile of beans was placed at the edge of the table. I’d hold a bowl just below the edge to drop in the clean pieces, and I’d pick off the debris – dried-up seeds, miniature twigs, tiny stones – all the undesirable, inedible stowaways. These would be set aside in a pile of their own, to be tossed at the conclusion of the cleaning.

“I refused to dispense with my pile of detritus too soon since these were the fruits of my labor, the nuggets minded out of the sack. They were much more interesting than the beans which huddled in the bowl, boring as clones.”


Award winning author, poet, fiction writer, memoirist, editor, professor of English, and more, Rigoberto González, who identifies himself as a gay Chicano, delivers that compelling narrative in the opening chapter of his book, autobiography of my hungers. The chapter, “allegory,” could not be better titled, for it’s the peidritas, or stones, that are emblematic of Rigoberto: He sees himself as the “debris,” the “undesirable,” “the dried-up seed.” But he refuses to “dispense” with himself, to give in, to give up. Through breath-halting poetry and affecting prose, each vignette in this slim yet lasting memoir portrays Rigoberto’s tumultuous journey through his childhood and beyond. His literal hunger growing up poor morphs into other kinds of hungers – hunger for love, and a lover, for acceptance and recognition, for an attractive body, and a healthy body, for quiet comfort, and for sustained empathy and understanding. Along the way, though, Rigoberto fills the “uninhabited rooms” of his existence with refreshing self-awareness and enduring vision.

Autobiography of my hungers will leave you sated, yet craving more – more of Rigoberto’s “gallery of tiny gems, colorful and edible as gumdrops.”

 

 

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Traumatic Brain Injuries and Homelessness

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On February 2, the groundhog declared, “There is no shadow to be cast. An early spring is in my forecast!” This is good news for homeless people, who endure long, cold days trying to keep warm, crouched in the corner of parking garages, curled up on floors of abandoned houses, or huddled together in makeshift tents. But for more than half of homeless men, they have even more to contend with than weather – traumatic brain injuries. With 600,000 homeless Americans shivering on the streets on any given night, this issue commands attention.

Studies have shown that most of the men surveyed sustained traumatic brain injuries prior to being homeless, many occurring during their early teenage years. The most common cause of traumatic brain injuries was attributed to assaults. A large percentage of homeless people studied grew up in chaotic households and experienced chronic childhood abuse, contributing to poor school performance, substance abuse, violent behavior, and arrests – as many as half of New York City teenagers who have been arrested have sustained traumatic brain injuries in the past.

What’s more disturbing is that many individuals reported that the harm they suffered as children, including the neurological outcomes, went untreated because their abusers attempted to shield their injuries from others. The statistics, however, do reveal the magnitude of the impact trauma has on the lives of individuals who have sustained such injuries.

The upside of all this research is the new knowledge we have gained, the knowledge that helps us assist the 600,000 homeless surviving on the streets – the confused, scared, lonely and lost individuals who are as human as the rest of us.

 

 

 

 

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“Failure breeds success”

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Do you ever berate yourself for failing, tell yourself that you should quite while you’re ahead? Has your writing been rejected by literary journals, magazines, and newspapers time and again ? If you’re a writer, you know what I’m talking about. Yes, we get rejected, a lot. Failure is inevitable. It’s inevitable for painters, dancers, musicians, for all creators. Writer, author, and inspirational speaker, Elizabeth Gilbert, failed – for six years she “failed at getting published.” She received rejection letters in the mail, every day.

Are you wondering where I’m going with this failure thread? Keep reading. As Elizabeth says in her Ted Talk, “Success, failure, and the drive to keep creating,” failure breeds success.”

How so? Elizabeth’s story is the answer:

Nearly a decade ago, when readers from all over devoured her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, she became an instant success. But with that success, she says, came the hard part: “How in the world I was ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody.”

You may not be a writer, but does this sentiment sound familiar? You’ve succeeded at something: maybe a record label has finally recognized your music. Or you’ve been accepted into an artist colony after applying countless times. Now that you’ve made it, you ask yourself, What’s next? This isn’t enough. I need to do more. I need to keep pleasing my partner, my parents, my grandparents, my children, my pet goldfish.

So, even if we succeeded, we feel like we’ve failed, because we burden ourselves with having to do better and better, all the time, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if we believe we can’t keep succeeding, we may seriously consider giving up, which is what Elizabeth considered after publishing her memoir. It’s all in the mind, really. That we can all agree upon, right? We see things in black and white, good or bad. Success equals good; failure equals bad. (Whoever came up with “good” and “bad” should be … Well, I’ll leave it at that.) Of course, the unending praise bestowed on us when we succeed boosts our egos, until we realize that we need to do more, do better, that this, whatever it is, is not enough. Similarly, the lack of recognition when we fail buries our confidence. Either way, when it comes to good versus bad, Elizabeth cautions us: “There’s a real equal danger in both cases of getting lost out there in the hinterlands of the psyche.”

To stop ourselves from second-guessing ourselves, we need to find a way to forge ahead, to fire-up our inspiration. For Elizabeth, she found that inspiration from past life lessons: the constant rejections she received in the mail each day. Rather than quitting though, she found her way back: “I’m going home,” she says. Not home in the literal sense; home in the artistic sense. Writing was, is, her home. Because writing is what she loves, she returns to it again and again. She went back home after the book she wrote in follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love failed. And she keeps going home.

But how do we find our way back home? Here’s a hint from Elizabeth: “Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself.”

 

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“To Be or Not to Be”

To be or not to be. MLK day. 2016

Every day, at least eight black people, three gay people, three Jewish, and one Latino person is a victim of a hate crime. A hate crime is defined as “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.”

In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Ilyasah Al-Shabazz, a community organizer, social activist, and motivational speaker, brought a church full of wide-eyed listeners to a standing applause as she articulated the byproducts of injustice: “Hatred is a learned behavior we are teaching our children, and if we teach them to hate others, we teach them to hate themselves.” The daughter of Malcolm X, one of the most influential African Americans in history, Ilyasah made it known that her father was “misunderstood” when he was criticized for his violent approach to resolving racial injustice. In defense of his more violent protests, he would quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “‘To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?”’ As Ilyasah said, her father, “was reacting to the injustices around him.”

Ilyasah was only three-years-old when her father was assassinated in 1965. Her mother, Betty Shabbaz, an educator and civil rights advocate, was in her twenties and pregnant with twins, yet went on to raise six daughters. She eventually received a master’s degree, then a PhD. “She never accepted no or I can’t,” Ilyasah said about her mother. Ilyasah does not accept “no or I can’t” either, but as she declared, “Forget what they say about pulling yourself up by your own boot straps. We need one another.”

It’s true what Ilyasah said: “Just one life, just this one time, then we go elsewhere.”

But how do we mark the one life we have been given with “yes” and “I can,” rather than with “no and “I can’t”? Ilyasah’s answer: “Knowledge of historical information prepares us for leadership and instills in us self-respect, strength, compassion, reminds us of who we are at our core – to be or not to be, that is the essential question,” she said. In other words, we have the choice to act or not to act.

 

 

 

 

 

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Benefits of Gratitude

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Every year, on the last Thursday of November, American families, friends, neighbors, and the otherwise lonely, gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving. For many of us, this year will be no different, and we’ll engage in yet another gastronomic extravaganza. We’ll gnaw on spiced and tenderized turkey wings, eat forkfuls of oven-baked stuffing, scoopfuls of buttered mash potatoes, cleanse the palate with a slice or two of cranberry sauce, and slip into our sweatpants to make room for the must-have dessert: pumpkin pie. We will likely eat ourselves into a tryptophan daze.

Some of us may even dress up in native American costumes, or as Pilgrims, recalling what we learned in history class, how the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians indulged in a three-day affair of eating, fishing, and hunting in November 1621, celebrating what is acknowledged as the first Thanksgiving. In the winter of 1620, after much of the Pilgrim population was killed, the colonists requested help from the native Indians, who taught them how to hunt, fish and plant crops. In return, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag to feast on their bounty of ripe food to celebrate their first successful autumn harvest.

While the narrative of Thanksgiving is partly about how varying cultures and races can gather together and actually get along, the holiday is a time to reflect upon what we are thankful for – in other words, gratitude.

A few weeks ago, while engaging in meditation during a yoga class, the instructor spoke in a melodic chant, with the goal of centering our thoughts on self-appreciation and appreciation for others. She encouraged us to hold onto equanimity and to release ourselves from attachment and aversion, then asked us to imagine sharing that peace of mind with others – loved ones, friends, strangers, even those with whom we are experiencing a somewhat challenged relationship.

As I focused on my breath, filling my lungs with the sweetness of a Sunday morning, I thought about the once-upon-a-time gratitude journal in which I wrote daily statements of thanks each day. I couldn’t recall how long it had been since I had written in that journal. As the yoga instructor had encouraged, I carried my mindful practice into the rest of my day, also bringing with me the theme of gratitude. I told myself I would start a new gratitude journal, in which I would jot down brief observations, thoughts, anything that reminds me I have a lot to be grateful for: the hand-knit afghan my mother-in-law gave me, hot water, a refrigerator full of food, socks with no holes.

In my research about the benefits of gratitude, I learned that keeping a gratitude journal does more than remind me I have a lot to be thankful for. Studies have shown that gratitude improves our emotional, mental, and physical health. It makes us happier, helps us sleep better, inspires us to exercise more, keeps us connected, increases our social capital, makes us more productive and less envious, motivates us to make decisions.

If it’s that easy, writing in a gratitude journal five minutes each day as a means to improve our long-term well being, by more than ten percent researchers say, then I’m in, hook, line, and sinker. Are you? I can’t think of a better time than now, November, National Gratitude Month, to start penciling the page with, “I’m grateful for …”

“This a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” ~ Maya Angelou

 

 

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