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The Cost of Caring

Rosy Thachil, MD

Disclosures

July 01, 2021

Compassion fatigue.

The term would seem like an oxymoron.

You would think compassion would make one less fatigued.

Compassion fatigue is often referred to as the "cost of caring" and is commonly experienced by those in altruistic or "caring" fields such as healthcare, public service, or welfare. It often develops as a result of working with highly intense situations such as death, illness, trauma, and disasters.

This past year, in the midst of the global pandemic, many physicians, nurses, and other allied healthcare workers have probably experienced their fair share of compassion fatigue (and then some). Personally, I know that there were many days in 2020 when I went home after taking care of COVID patients, feeling depleted and helpless.

We all have emotional bandwidths, and when we are participating in helping endeavors (healthcare, public service, even being a parent), there is a sense of cumulative emotional fatigue that can develop over time. When our emotional bandwidths are overextended or not given a chance to reset, it may manifest as irritability, a decrease in empathy, or even indifference ("emotionally numb").

Compassion, arguably, is a zero-sum game. It is difficult to give without giving of yourself. Compassion and empathy are human virtues that can be depleted, though renewable with time and rest.

To combat emotional exhaustion, we are often encouraged to engage in self-care activities, meditation, yoga, exercise, a healthy diet, time with family and friends, and enjoyable hobbies. While these are certainly helpful, they are often easier said than done because healthcare workers tend to feel guilty taking time away from work and our patients. We may also have limiting beliefs surrounding self-care (ie, it is selfish, indulgent, or not patient-centered).

A few shifts in mindset that may help to overcome guilt and manage compassion fatigue:

  • Remember that caregivers require care too. By taking care of yourself, you will take better care of your patients and bring greater joy and enthusiasm to what you do. Compassion satisfaction will only enhance your job performance.

  • Remember your "why." The altruism of our endeavors can give us purpose, especially during trying times.

  • Realize that feeling compassion fatigue is a normal (and very human) response. You are in good company, as these are common sentiments within the healthcare community.

  • Allow yourself some grace. Practice self-compassion. On tougher days, I remind myself that I have impacted many lives over the past year. And this reminder does not make us arrogant.

At the end of the day, compassion fatigue to some extent is a side effect of our profession as healthcare workers. We are professional helpers, after all.

If you have suggestions for managing or preventing compassion fatigue, feel free to comment below.

As we approach the long weekend and Independence Day, remember to take some time to recharge and replenish your emotional bandwidths (guilt-free).

Disclaimer: The above article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not professional medical advice. If you believe that you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your physician or 911.

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About Dr Rosy Thachil
Rosy Thachil, MD, is a noninvasive cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She is a graduate of Jefferson Medical College and completed cardiology training at Mount Sinai Hospital. She is a fellow of the American College of Cardiology.

Dr Thachil's clinical interests including acute cardiovascular care, cardiac critical care, and health disparities. Her nonclinical interests include personal development, blogging, and writing (at thachilmd.com).

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