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Stress, Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, Oh My…

How to stress wisely during times of great uncertainty.

Key points

  • Stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue are rising at an alarming rate as COVID-19 tests our resilience.
  • Some people think that if we are stoic enough or strong enough, stress will not affect us. This is not true.
  • Recovery from distress is possible and involves treating both the body and the mind with compassion and understanding.
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Close picture of waves.
Source: Naja Bertolt Jensen/Unsplash

“I finally accepted that I could not calm the storm, but I could calm myself, and the storm did pass.” (p. 48, Hanley-Dafoe, 2021)

The recent events of COVID-19 have been an incredible test of our resilience. Our existence has been stripped down to the essentials. We are in a global fight to protect and manage our health and our communities. This global crisis will change the world forever, and each of us will inevitably be transformed by the experience.

COVID-19 and the events surrounding the pandemic will be taught in future history classes. One key lesson I hope we take with us as we move forward in life co-existing with COVID-19 is that stress and burnout are real. There is a belief that only weak people succumb to the pressure of stress. Some people think that if we are stoic enough or strong enough, stress will not affect us. This is a lie we have been conditioned to believe. Stress and burnout hit hard and, left unattended, wreak havoc in every area of our lives.

With people trapped in a chronic stress cycle, a new dimension of distress, beyond burnout, is becoming more prevalent—compassion fatigue. Unlike burnout, it is not depletion from everyday stressors; it is depletion from feeling another person’s pain.

Dr. Figley summed up compassion fatigue as the "cost of caring." Dr. Haas defines compassion fatigue as when someone becomes numb to the suffering of others, feels less able to display empathy toward them, or loses hope in their ability to help. Although often associated with health care professionals, soldiers, or those exposed to human suffering, I have seen it spread like wildfire into new frontiers like leadership, business, education, and even parenting.

I believe that this trend of compassion fatigue increasing is because people are not practicing compassion and empathy with themselves. People think of empathy as a finite resource. There is only so much to give, so they withhold it from themselves.

In my work, many people report to me they are not allowed to have a bad day since they live in an abundance of privilege. Even when you live with privilege, you can still have a bad day. It does not matter if you are drowning in 2 feet of water or 10 feet of water, you are still drowning. Take the side of the boat. Reach for the hand. Every human has the right to receive "care." When we practice empathy with ourselves, then it can flow more readily to others.

Where Is the Stress Coming From?

There is a common misconception about distress that it is only a result of the volumes of work. It is not just the time in work that is leading to the different forms of distress. It is the time outside our values and the invisible labor that is causing us to feel overwhelmed.

This overwhelmed feeling is the pandemic within a pandemic. You value family above all else, yet you are sending your children away because of online meetings. You value being a present parent, but now you are a distracted parent, and that takes a toll. Alternatively, you value collaboration and community, but you are working alone. Without your workmates, the work becomes heavy and unfulfilling.

I have spoken with front-line nurses who pride themselves on providing excellent patient care, yet now they are using a practice developed by a Brazilian nurse of filling up medical gloves with warm water to leave on patients' hands to give them a sense of someone being with them. When we spend time living and working outside our values, it erodes our soul.

Beware of the Hidden Trap Within Compassion Fatigue.

Amy Cunningham warns us of a dangerous byproduct of compassion fatigue known as self-entitlement. This is when we adopt a justified mindset that since we do so much for others, we are justified in doing negative or maladaptive behaviors. This explains why we snap at a colleague or family member. Self-entitlement can also look like drinking that second bottle, eating beyond comfort, or watching 18 hours of on-demand television.

In our minds, we are justified because of all the work we do, or we want to fight back against the "systems" or the "establishments" that are burning us out. The reality is that we are not hurting the unjust world; we are hurting ourselves. It is a slippery slope that leads into self-sabotage.

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Open highway with dark clouds but a rainbow peeking through.
Source: Scott Van Hoy/Unsplash

Reset and Recovery.

It would be optimal to avoid getting to the burnout stage, but this is not always possible. Dr. Kotler recommends active brain recovery that shifts brainwaves into the alpha range. This can only be achieved through a complete interruption of our routine and demands.

We need active brain recovery through sleep, self-care, and a total reset. For some, this is body work. You need to address the body for rest. For others, it is mind work. You need a literal break from thinking and productivity.

When you recognize that you are experiencing burnout, you must stop to minimize the blast radius and prioritize active recovery immediately. You cannot afford not to. Acknowledging and validating our realities is the first step in stressing wisely. We may be depleted, but we are not defeated. Stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue can co-exist with resiliency.