Compassion Fatigue: Being Human in 2020

This week I considered discussing how orientation at my new facility went or how I’ve settled into my apartment, but I felt the need to discuss something on a more personal note. In the spirit of honesty, and much like most of you, I have struggled to cope with the events that continue to wreak havoc on our lives. As a nurse the outbreak of COVID-19 has drastically changed the nursing work environment with increasing stress levels, heavier physical workload, ever-changing safety practices, patients that just don’t get better, and an astounding emotional toll from the greater sense of loss on behalf of patients’ families. Yet, it seems that the world outside of the hospital doors has become so much more vicious and unkind than the endless ventilator alarms, call bells, beeping pumps, and monitor alarms that I face at work all night long.

One of many concepts that nursing schools teach to prepare nurses to care for other human beings is that of compassion fatigue. Caring for others under the stressful conditions of hospitalization, critical illness, chronic disease, abuse, trauma, surgical procedures, recovery, and end of life can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion for caregivers. Nurses are called upon to be advocates for total strangers, to help manage their care and recovery from illness not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This strain can lead to secondary trauma for the nurse causing indifference or put more simply a lack of compassion. This is something we are trained to recognize and to try and manage for ourselves, but as the year 2020 continues in determination to be infamous I have begun to wonder if we are collectively experiencing a form of compassion fatigue.

Each day we are bombarded with news of more COVID-19 cases, we aren’t given many details other than how many are hospitalized and how many have died. We are repeatedly told to take safety precautions: wear your mask, clean your hands, don’t touch your face, stay six feet away from others. We are given updates on treatments and protocols that have yet to show consistent and viable results for those who are ill. The shock and dismay at the lives lost has begun to wear into a dull recognition of the numbers on our screens. Our fight to keep the pandemic controlled by our own efforts seems hopeless in the face of the surmounting death toll. It is easier and easier to look away, to become indifferent, to start lacking compassion.

I see it happening, while you do not need me to tell you, I just want to say that it is understandable if you have begun to feel this way. If the news on the television has become more faint to your ears, if the articles posted on your social media feeds are easier and easier to scroll past, if you feel like you just don’t or can’t care anymore, know that there is a name to what you are/aren’t feeling: compassion fatigue. Our bodies and minds are built to form coping mechanisms, unfortunately sometimes they aren’t particularly healthy. There’s no shame in recognizing that you have been overwhelmed. As one human being reaching out to another, I’m just reminding you take care of yourself. Not necessarily by wearing your mask or washing your hands, but by stepping away from the news for a while. Put down your phone or your tablet and take a few deep breaths, make a promise to stay away for a few hours or even a couple days. Enjoy the warmth and companionship of your family and loved ones. Get outside and soak up some sunshine, dive into your favorite hobbies, find a place where your compassion and feeling dwell. If you need it, seek professional help from a counselor.

I hope that we as a people facing not only the viral pandemic, but the seemingly endless political and socioeconomic turmoil that has dominated this year can return to a state of compassion; a state where we have the mental and physical energy to see from someone else’s viewpoint, to be able to see the numbers on our screens and maintain our awe of current events, to feel loss on behalf of our brothers and sisters around us, a state where we fight for and stand with each other as we recognize the humanity in those around us. I hope we can recognize all the things that are good and beautiful not only around us, but in each other.

Much love, until next time.

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