There's a difference between burning with compassion and burning out with fatigue, according to Amy Buehrer, MSW, LSW, of Pyramid Healthcare, speaking at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders. The two-part workshop covered the principles of compassion fatigue and techniques for self-care.
While it seems as if patients must always come first, professionals have an ethical responsibility to care for themselves so that they can deliver the best care from a place of personal resilience rather than a place of stress.
"What we find when we come into this field is that we have nothing to give others if we don't take care of ourselves" said Kathryn Coleman, MSW, LCSW, also with Pyramid Healthcare.
And self-care is more than just taking a bath or treating yourself to a chocolate bar.
"You all work in a very toxic environment," Buehrer said. "Your patients have more complex conditions than they did 10 years ago. They have stress, they have trauma, and I have news for you: The environment isn't going to change."
She said patients today are coming into treatment with more co-occurring disorders and complex conditions, including addiction, mental health and socioeconomic issues. Professionals can't just treat one issue and expect positive outcomes.
Buehrer and Coleman presented tips to combat compassion fatigue including:
Meditate on your moral compass: Figure out what drives you, such as honesty, hope or remaining personally teachable in your work. Stay true to your moral compass.
Self-validation: Get to a place where validation from others does not drive your idea of whether you've done a good job or not. Consider writing yourself a letter that recognizes your own accomplishments and keep the letter handy for self-validation during difficult times.
Create connection and support: Create a place where difficult issues can be discussed, such as through networking or by planning scheduled time with your professional support network to come together and be there for each other. "These need to be professional peers who understand what you do on a regular basis," said Coleman.
Self-regulation: Get your own nervous system in control. Be able to put your parasympathetic nervous system in check when you feel stressed and go into fight-or-flight mode.
Self-care: There are several categories of self-care that range from emotional to spiritual to professional. Create a list of the many elements of self-care and strategize ways you can implement them. For example, exercise three times a week for 15 minutes to increase your physical self-care. Consider shutting off your electronic devices for a certain period of time to fulfill your psychological self-care plan.
"You will feel pain in your job because of the work you do. But you don't have to suffer," Buehrer said.