Compassion Fatigue

If you’ve fantasied about abandoning your family over the past year you are not a monster.  If you had these thoughts pre-pandemic you still aren’t a monster. You’re a mom and it’s totally normal. At this point in the pandemic we’ve seen the articles about the pressures placed on parents, mother’s in particular. “Burn out” is an overused term for sure. Something more specific to consider is Compassion Fatigue, sometimes clinically referred to as vicarious trauma or secondary trauma. 

Compassion fatigue is traditionally associated with the “helping professions.” Those would be: health care workers, teachers, clergy, a pretty self-explanatory term. Basically, it is often experienced by people who are helping other people deal with trauma.  Considering the definition, I think we can count parents, mother’s in particular, as members of the “helping profession.” Considering the past year, I think it’s safe to say that pretty much all parents have been helping their children deal with pandemic traumas. Here are some things to know about Compassion Fatigue:

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Signs you might be experiencing Compassion Fatigue:

Its onset is rapid. Burn out presents in a progressive type of way. Compassion fatigue can sometimes feel like it happened in as short as a few days and is not uncommon following a specific event. For mom’s, such events  this past year might be: several rough days of zoom school; supporting your child while they deal with social isolation; helping your child cope with their own depression or anxiety.

Physical and emotional pain. It’s always important to remember that our feelings, especially depression and anxiety, manifest in physical ways. Compassion fatigue is no different. Many people report body tension and headaches. 

Hopelessness, increased irritability, changes in sleep and anhedonia are all common. Keep in mind, these are also symptoms of depression. Seeing a professional who can assess onset, frequency and duration of symptoms will help generate an accurate clinical picture. 

One of the most distinguishing features of Compassion Fatigue is decreased empathy. This is what can lead to those very common thoughts of leaving your family. In those moments, you really just do not give a f&*k about hearing from your kids, trying to help or really showing much love and support. When our empathy is low or non-existent, we can feel disconnected and alone.

What to do about it:

Take a break if possible. From a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) perspective, behavioral interventions are the quickest way to see changes in our mood. They are also easier than conquering our distorted thoughts. If you can take a day or even half a day off work do it. Switch up your routine if possible, especially if you have a partner who can help. Ask for help from friends or extended family if that’s something you are comfortable with or is possible at this point in the pandemic. 

Talk to a professional. Understanding that you are not “crazy” is often a huge relief since worrying you are “crazy” is a very common fear people have. I have been asked many times over the years following an initial assessment, “So, I’m not crazy?” Having some sort of understanding and context about what you’re experiencing is hugely helpful. Not to mention the benefits of ongoing supportive therapy. 

Though these two things can be extremely difficult when we are struggling, try to get as much sleep as possible and move your body if you can. Even a short walk can help. For moms, a short walk alone is even better!

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Apply some basic CBT tools by making a list of your Cognitions (thoughts), Behaviors and Feelings. Remember that our brain generates all sorts of different thoughts. Just because we have a thought doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Similar concept with feelings. Just because we’re feeling a certain way, doesn’t mean we are that feeling. If the thought is, “I’m a horrible mother. I’m a monster.” That does not mean you’re horrible or a monster. If you feel lonely and worthless, it does not mean you are alone and have no value.  Thoughts and feelings are temporary. We never stay one way forever. Validate for yourself that it’s been an incredibly hard year to parent. That it’s normal to have unpleasant, harsh or intense thoughts. It’s also normal and even healthy to sometimes fantasize about a life away from your family.

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