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A little 'Tea Time for the Soul' can combat emotional fatigue

During this season of giving, we’re reminded of the joy inherent in helping others, and we’re inspired to offer our compassion to strangers and loved ones alike. But while we’re spreading kindness, joy and love, it’s important not to spread ourselves too thin.

As the director of pastoral care at Hoag, I see the effects of “compassion fatigue” on doctors, nurses and other caregivers who have given so much of themselves that their gas tanks are drained to empty. These are the people who see the most heart-wrenching cases – the oncologists, spinal cord injury nurses and neonatal intensive care unit staffers – who face so much vicarious trauma that they eventually hit a wall of physical and emotional exhaustion.

When that happens, it’s important to take time to recharge. For medical staff we offer a program called “Tea Time for the Soul,” which includes group discussion and staff support to counteract compassion fatigue, a condition that mimics burnout without the desire to stop working.

This is usually requested following times of stress, such as when there is an unusually high volume of patients, or an emotional death. Department staff members come together as a group, to talk and support one another through the stress and distress they have been holding inside.

For people outside the hospital setting — adult children taking care of ailing parents or people caring for sick children or spouses — a similar kind of approach can also be used to refill the compassion gas tank.

The key is to come together as a community. Whether that community is your family, your friends or your workplace, when you are able to put your arms around each other, you can help lift each other up.

It is also important to take care of yourself physically. Getting enough exercise and sleep, and eating well, can help give you the emotional reserve you need to continue to care for others.

During Tea Time for the Soul, we’ll often hear comments like “my patient’s stress affects me deeply.” But as soon as those feelings are echoed and validated by others, that gas gauge begins to rise.

Being understood, being heard and taking the time to reflect upon our shared values helps buoy us up out of our stress. So gather your friends and loved ones together to talk and support each other.

This is particularly relevant during the holidays, when the losses of family members who have died are more acutely felt, or when stresses in the family are more pronounced. It is during this time that group support is most important, and most effective.

If you find yourself emotionally and physically exhausted, there’s a good chance that your family or friends feel the same way. Talk to them and listen. When you reach out to someone else, you are likely to find that you receive what you give away.

Don Oliver is chaplain and director of pastoral care at Hoag.