Do you ever feel physically and emotionally exhausted, have a loss of hope or a difficulty sleeping? These and many other feelings and actions can be warning signs that you have compassion fatigue. My husband, Stephen and I came back from 2 years of doing mission work over in Uganda, Africa. After 10 months of being back in the U.S we became licensed foster parents. During our 6-week training for foster care we learned about compassion fatigue. This was the first time I had ever heard about it and I thought to myself, this is something every missionary needs to know.
What do you think of when you hear these words? You’re probably thinking to yourself that you have never experienced compassion fatigue before. You might even say that you have never heard of compassion fatigue before. Let me tell you, compassion fatigue is real, and most missionaries experience it and don’t even realize it. It’s not something that just missionaries experience, but it can happen to anyone that helps to take care of other people. We are going to talk about what compassion fatigue is, the warning signs of it, how to prevent it and what you can do when it happens to you.
Compassion fatigue has been explained as a “Profound emotional and physical exhaustion that helping professionals, missionaries, and caregivers can develop over the course of their career as helpers. It is a gradual erosion of all the things that keep us connected to others in our role: our empathy, our hope, and of course our compassion, not only for others, but for ourselves.” (The Compassion Fatigue Workbook) Like the definition says it’s both an emotional and physical feeling. “Compassion fatigue is caused by empathy”. A lot of people mistake compassion fatigue as burn out when really “It is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people.” According to Portnoy, burnout and compassion fatigue can overlap.
Like I said earlier some of you might say to yourself that you have never experienced compassion fatigue before. Let me share with you some of the symptoms and warning signs caused by it:
- Anger and irritability- difficulty controlling mood swings
- Exaggerated sense of responsibility- “I can’t stop, people need me.”
- Shifting blame; taking out stress on others in personal relationships
- Susceptibility to illness
- Somatization: tension headaches, low back pain
- Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or food to self medicate stress
- Feeling like avoiding work or specific clients
- Reduced ability to feel sympathy or empathy “I know where this story is going”
- Resentment- “Why are all the demands on me?”
- Hypervigilance- feeling that you’re always “on” even when on break
- Difficulty separating personal and professional life
- Failure to nurture non-work related aspects of life
- Affects many dimensions of your well-being
- Nervous system arousal (Sleep disturbance)
- Emotional intensity increases
- Cognitive ability decreases
- Behavior and judgment impaired
- Depression and PTSD (potentiate)
- Identity, worldview, and spirituality impacted
- Beliefs and psychological needs-safety, trust, esteem, intimacy, and control
As you read over the list, do any of these sound familiar in your daily life? Some of the warning signs and symptoms may overlap each other. The key is to know what the signs and symptoms are so that you can listen to your body. You are the only one who will know best what your body is telling you.
There are many things you can do daily to prevent compassion fatigue. The most important thing you can do for yourself, is self-care. The basics of self-care are sleep, rest, proper diet, exercise, and vacations, nourishing activities and a regular debriefing process. You will want to make sure you do at least one nourishing activity per day. Some nourishing activities include: 30-minute bath/shower, Long evening walk, read a novel, A bicycle ride, go out to a restaurant with a friend, watch a movie or TV, get away for the weekend to a Safari lodge or capital city, Soak to worship music, sit outside on your porch and breathe deeply, Play with your dogs or children.
I remember being in Africa and enjoying our days off sitting on our back porch reading and studying. We also took time to go on walks and play with our dog. We would relax at night with watching an American TV show which we had on DVD. It’s the little things that you think you can do without in another country, but it’s those little things that keep us grounded. Terry Thompson, pastor at Rock Point Church said, “If we fail to “secure our own oxygen mask first”, we will be of little value to those around us who need our assistance”.
As a missionary I think one of the hardest thing to do was, take a vacation. Our minds are focused on doing our job which is taking care of other people that we forget about ourselves. Also, it’s hard to justify spending supporter money on ourselves. As hard as it is, I suggest you make it a priority to speak with your sending organization or Board and let them know that you need to raise money specifically for a vacation. You can talk to your biggest supporters about this need as well. Set aside the time on your calendar to do this. If you are back in the states, there are also plenty of missionary retreat places for those of you who don’t have the finances.
The other important to remember is to not forget about your own spiritual development. Missionaries especially, are so focused on sharing the gospel and ‘feeding’ other people with the word of God, we often forget that we need to be fed as well. Whether you find a local church to attend or watch your home church online, make sure you continue to grow in your relationship with Jesus Christ.
Lastly, this is a call to all churches, now that you know about compassion fatigue make sure to check in on your missionaries. Really listen to what they are saying and use this as a reference to truly partner with them physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially and through prayer. Missionaries have a big task at hand and they are going to need us to make sure they stay healthy in all these areas! If you have any questions about this. please contact us via e-mail at [email protected].
Here is a graph that explains the process of compassion fatigue: