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.