Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma in Helping Professions

Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious or Secondary Trauma can have a huge impact on people in helping professions and a good understanding of these two conditions are very important in preventing them. However, to understand how compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma work, we first need to understand how empathy works.

One of the characteristics of the human nature (and not only human) is the capacity to feel empathy, without which we would probably not have survived as a species. Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what another person is experiencing. But how do we do it? Well, according to Neuroscience when we are in the presence of another the more we get attuned to them the more our body starts mimicking and getting in sync with theirs. Our body might mirror their posture, our breathing might get in sync, our heartbeat might change, and our Central Nervous System in general starts copying theirs. The physical mirroring triggers relevant emotions. We start experiencing the anxiety, the sadness, the anger, the emotional pain etc. And this is billiard and helpful for a mother who needs to understand why her young baby cries, but it can also lead to Vicarious Trauma and Secondary Traumatic Stress which is indirect trauma that can occur when we are exposed to difficult or disturbing images and stories second-hand.

Now imagine a nurse who works in A&E, a homicide detective or a psychotherapist. Due to the nature of their work they are constantly exposed to physical and emotional pain and trauma. The repeat exposure to emotional distress and traumatic situations can lead to deep emotional exhaustion which is called Compassion Fatigue. This exhaustion diminishes one’s ability to feel empathy for their clients, loved ones and co-workers. You might hear people describing it as “having nothing left to give”.

And it needs to be noted that Adoptive Parents can also be affected by these two conditions as they are exposed to the trauma their children might have experienced.

Now the important question is, how do we support ourselves so we can keep caring and helping others? And the answer is simple (at least in theory): we have to ‘have’ in order to give and self care is the key to this. We need to find ways to recharge emotionally without that becoming a chore on it’ s own. It could be a good meal, having a relaxing bath, watching a good movie, reading a book, making sure we take small breaks from our work during the day or even just allowing ourselves to do nothing for half an hour a day. Find the simple things that give you joy and treat yourself, especially on difficult days. And make sure you rest, emotionally and physically.

Another important element is finding support ourselves. For people in the caring professions, being the helper has become such a part of our identity that we often struggle to ask for help when things get difficult. It is ok to be human and it is vital for a good and ethical practice to accept our limits and be able to ask for support. This could be in the form of Supervision, talking to a colleague, discussing with your manager, getting advice from a professional etc.

Finally, for anyone interested in reading more about this I would recommend ‘Help for the Helper’ by Babette Rothschild. It is written for Psychotherapists and Counsellors, but there is useful information there for everyone.