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Is Compassion Fatigue Burning You Out?

Three ways to care for yourself and others.

Andrii Atanov
Source: iStock:Andrii Atanov

Is caring for others leaving you feeling exhausted and burnt out? While a quick Google search of your symptoms, or even a visit to a doctor, may result in compassion fatigue being blamed as the culprit, scientists are suggesting this misdiagnosis often cuts us off from the unexpected antidotes that are most likely to help us.

There is abundant evidence that suggests because compassion involves taking action to alleviate someone's pain or suffering rather than just empathetically witnessing suffering, the reward centers of our brains associated with positive emotion, positive affect, and feelings of affiliation are activated,” explained professor Stephen Trzeciak, Chair of Medicine at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, when we interviewed him recently. “While empathy hurts, compassion actually heals—for both the giver and receiver.”

So why might we feel like caring for others is leaving us exhausted and burnt out?

“When we experience burnout, our instinct may be to withdraw or focus attention away from where we feel the source of our burnout is,” said Trzeciak. “However, research suggests we actually need to do the very opposite and lean into connection and relationship. This is because when people are experiencing similar levels of stress, those who are low in compassion are the most predisposed to burnout. This points towards compassion being a protective factor for burnout for us.”

Unfortunately, the evidence also suggests that we are in the midst of a compassion crisis.

Trzeciak suggests that one belief that prevents many of us from being more compassionate is that it takes too much time. For example, 56 percent of physicians believe that they don't have time to treat patients with compassion. However, five different studies have found that it takes less than one minute to make a compassionate connection, and the neurological benefits left people feeling less pressured and more “time affluent.”

Rather than holding back our compassion for fear of the energy, effort, and time caring for others requires, Trzeciak recommends:

  • Asking questions with care: When we notice something is wrong, ask the person what is worrying them most and hold space for them to respond in meaningful ways. We don’t have to be a fixer; just being present for each other is helpful in and of itself and can have a significant impact.
  • Giving time to get time: Instead of moving through your day with brusque efficiency and letting people know exactly how busy you are, look for opportunities to make meaningful connections.
  • Fostering a growth mindset: Understand that your empathy and compassion are malleable and can grow and improve with practice. Getting out there and putting compassion into action will help you get better at making genuine, authentic, and meaningful connections.

How can you share a little more compassion in ways that are good for you and for others?

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