"If I was scared when I first saw you, your vital signs only caused me more worry. My mind raced...how much dopamine is this kid on...is that really his pressure? I could barely feel your pulses! The physicians faces mirrored my own", recalls one nurse. Day in and day out, doctors and nurses care for children and their families. Some are very sick. Some just need a check up. Some get better. Some don't.
Despite their calm, collected, reassuring demeanor, any healthcare provider can experience compassion fatigue or even secondary traumatic stress. Many have heard or experienced compassion fatigue, consisting of "burnout and secondary traumatic stress"; in other words, feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and that no matter what you do, you can't make the patient, or the situation, better. So what is secondary traumatic stress? A new fact sheet from SAMHSA states that it occurs when "the negative effects of this work can make them feel like the trauma of the people they are helping is happening to them or the people they love". What should you look for in yourself or fellow coworkers? Symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
- As if nothing you can do will help
- Tired—even exhausted—and overwhelmed
- Like a failure
- As though you are not doing your job well
- Disconnected from others, lacking feelings, indifferent
- As if you need to use alcohol or other mind-altering substances to cope
Signs of secondary traumatic stress, include:
- Fear in situations that others would not think were frightening
- Excessive worry that something bad will happen to you, your loved ones, or colleagues
- Easily startled, feeling “jumpy” or “on guard” all of the time
- Wary of every situation, expecting a traumatic outcome
- Physical signs like a racing heart, shortness of breath, and increased tension headaches
- Sense of being haunted by the troubles you see and hear from others and not being able to make them go away
- The feeling that others’ trauma is yours.
To help cope, learn to recognize these symptoms in yourself or others, practice good self care, and seek professional help as needed. What tips do you have to deal with compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress?