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Dealing With the Stress of Others

It is hard enough to manage our own stress never mind that of others.

It is hard enough to manage your own stress but we often have to absorb the stress of others too. If you tend to be a compassionate and empathetic person (which are certainly characteristics that we should value) you’ll often easily absorb the stress of others. This includes the stress experienced by family, friends, neighbors, and work associates as well as strangers too. For example, does it stress you to listen to the troubles of others or the news where there are always reports of suffering somewhere in the country and the world? Do you get stressed even when watching movies where the actors are portraying those who suffer? If you work in particular industries such as health care, travel, customer service, education, and the mental health field you are often asked to deal with or 'hold" the stress of others. How does that impact you?

I gave a workshop the other day to a group of mental health professionals on the topic of spirituality and psychotherapy integration. Many of the therapists at the workshop are employed in hospice. One said that he found his 20 year career in hospice very satisfying yet quite draining. He developed compassion fatigue and thoughtfully retired from his career when he found himself being unable to be as empathetic and compassionate as he desired and as he used to be.

Antisocial and narcissistic personalities don’t have to worry about this at all. They don’t feel empathy for others and are thus not drained by the stress around them. I’m certainly not suggesting that people should manage the stress of others by being more narcissistic or antisocial but they do need to find a way to balance compassion and empathy for others for their own survival. This isn’t easy and I don’t have any magic formula to accomplish this goal. However, there are several principles that might be helpful.

First, know when to shut the news off. Yes, terrible things are happening all the time but you don’t have to absorb the stress of the world when there is often little you can do about it anyway.

Second, try to triage your compassion. Focus on those who you are most engaged with and those with whom you can make a difference in their lives.

Third, live the serenity prayer. In a nutshell it states that we should change what we can, accept what we can’t change, and learn to know the difference. It is excellent advice. Some things we can do much to help while in other areas we really can’t do anything at all.

Fourth, don’t underestimate the value of solidarity. You might not be able to fix the stress of others but just being there for them and walking with them on their journey can be powerful and important.

Finally, find ways to recharge your batteries. A run, walk, some private time, prayer, meditation, the distraction of a sporting event or a good movie all may help to give you a break before you go out there again to help others.

There are no magic answers of course. It is hard enough to manage our own stress never mind that of others. But compassion and empathy for others (and ourselves) is critical and valued but we all need to find ways to balance these demands.

So, what do you think?

More from Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP
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