Where does chronic stress lead you—to burnout or compassion fatigue?
This month, we are dedicating our attention to the topic of stress—how to prevent it and where it can lead us when it comes to extremes, which are much more common than we realize. Besides physical discomfort and challenges with mental health, it can lead to burnout and/or compassion fatigue.
In this article, I clarify certain ambiguities and provide recommendations for taking care of yourself if you recognize the signs of these two conditions.
Burnout syndrome and compassion fatigue—what are they?
Compassion fatigue and burnout syndrome are two types of stress that lead to mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion.
Burnout syndrome is a condition where persistently high levels of stress cause a significant decline in emotional, mental, and occasionally physical health. Since burnout is not a specific diagnosis but rather a general collection of signs and symptoms, other mental health conditions like anxiety disorders and depression frequently make their effects worse.
Compassion fatigue is a state of emotional, mental, and/or physical exhaustion resulting from continuous exposure to others’ suffering or trauma. Compassion fatigue is common among people who work in the helping professions, but it can also happen to people who are highly sensitive or who are exposed to traumatic material, no matter what they do for a living (like caring for someone who is chronically ill or elderly).
The most common signs of compassion fatigue are headaches, sadness, avoidance of working with certain people, nightmares, and changes in value systems. Also, you may experience increased alienation in relationships with close people. Even though some of the signs of burnout are the same, the most common ones are chronic tiredness, anger, frustration, cynicism, negativity, and withdrawal.
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Main differences between these two conditions
- Context: Compassion fatigue is the result of helping/caring for others. Burnout syndrome is the result of a stressful workplace.
- Signs: Compassion fatigue starts quickly and can be felt after the first time you deal with something traumatic. Burnout occurs gradually over time as stressful situations at work or responsibilities accumulate.
- Recovery: If the signs are detected early, recovery from compassion fatigue is faster than burnout, which requires a longer recovery period.
Unfortunately, you can suffer from burnout syndrome and compassion fatigue simultaneously!
How can you help yourself?
In addition to physical activity, adequate support from a psychotherapist (if you want to discover the deeper reasons why you fell into these conditions), and learning how to set boundaries, and create a better balance between private and professional life, here are some suggestions that may be helpful:
Stop and define the problem.
What exactly is the cause of your exhaustion? Do you have more work than time available to complete the tasks at hand? Is there a gap in your skills or in what is required of you in your job? What exactly causes stress? Are there specific communication challenges with colleagues or superiors, and what are those challenges? Gather all significant data so that you know what to focus on in search of solutions. You can periodically check in with yourself to see if other people’s emotions, moods, and problems are overwhelming you. If you notice this in conversation with others, you can take a step back/pause while listening to other people’s problems and observe yourself: How do I feel right now?, What do I need at this moment?, Am I still able to continue this conversation? What thoughts are present in me?, How does my body feel?
When facing problems, we often tend to isolate ourselves from other people, feeling that we should take care of our difficulties on our own. In mindfulness practice, we also talk about self-compassion (Mindful self-compassion), which implies an element of humanity. This specifically means that by seeking help from others, we get different perspectives and support, develop our resilience, strengthen our relationships, and generally have a positive impact on our mental health. None of us can do everything alone. Your colleagues and loved ones won’t know how to help you if you don’t tell them.
TRE exercises for stress release.
These exercises are a great method for anyone who wants to relieve stress and tension in their body in a relaxing and efficient way. TRE stands for Tension and Trauma Release Exercises. These exercises are based on the fundamental idea that stress, tension, and trauma are both psychological and physical. The exercises are straightforward, and once learned, they can be used as a method for self-help!
Mindfulness exercises can be done daily. You don’t always need to set aside 30 minutes for practice or necessarily close your eyes and sit. When facing a stressful situation or making important decisions, you can take a minute or two to connect with your body, breathing, and sounds around you. This calms your nervous system and prevents automatic fight-or-flight reactions. You can use your lunch break to eat mindfully without looking at your phone or computer. You can walk consciously and focus your attention on each step you take.
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