Healing compassion fatigue


Do you believe that if you are objective and detached enough, you can deal with your student’s challenges without being negatively affected? Most people hope for this, but studies show that this is rarely true for anyone.

J. Eric Gentry

In a free CE webinar entitled “Compassion Fatigue Prevention & Resliency: Fitness for the Frontline,” on PESI.com, J. Eric Gentry, Ph.D., a trauma expert, gave some tips on how to be emotionally resilient after facing painful experiences, both ours and others.

Gentry defined compassion fatigue as a combination of secondary traumatic stress, from dealing constantly with people who are suffering, and burnout, from dealing with the environment itself — work demands, workplace politics, paperwork, scheduling, resources, etc.

To handle secondary traumatic stress, Gentry asked listeners to consider what exactly is stressful about their environment. We tend to point to people, things, or situations. But Gentry asserted that is actually the fear that these elements are threatening that causes stress. This fear might come from a previous traumatic event which colors our view of the world. So he recommends reconsidering whether our environment itself is actually threatening. The realization that we are, in reality, safe, reduces stressful feelings, allows us to have calmer thoughts, and be intentional instead of reactive.

Gentry also discussed negative strategies some people use to soothe the pain of stress. These include over-eating, over-spending, drinking, drugs, gambling, pornography — self-destructive things that the person generally doesn’t like, but which become increasingly addictive.

To combat these tendencies, it’s important to cultivate one or two people in your life (but no more) whom you give permission to confront you if you start to lose yourself. These people must have enough character to persevere even if you resist their interventions.

Another symptom of secondary traumatic stress is when thoughts about work pop up unbidden during non-work time. If not handled, these intrusions contaminate every aspect of life and are a constant interruption of quality of life by work-related experiences. This is a symptom of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

Gentry said there are three therapeutic tasks that handle PTSD: 1) ability to maintain a relationship, 2), ability to relax, and 3) pairing of traumatic experiences with a relaxing environment. He said it would be ideal to keep one’s body relaxed when confronting a traumatic experience such as with a student. But this is hard to do.

So, on a regular basis, it’s helpful to build a support network where we can share traumatic stories while keeping our bodies relaxed. This relegates the events to the past and has a healing effect.

Regarding burnout, its standard definition has three aspects: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. Studies have determined that the overwhelming cause of burnout are workplace factors,

Similar to stress, Gentry said that the main problem surrounding burnout is perception of threat, not any threat itself. People cannot continue to function while constantly feeling threatened, and demanding jobs can make us feel threatened.

However, Gentry contends that we have more freedom than we know. Of course, a person who doesn’t live up to work demands could get fired and lose financial security. But, Gentry says, we take the sting out of work when we change our perception of it, and make the work our choice. When we choose to do the work because we decide it’s the right thing to do, this ends the feeling of burnout.

To sum up, Gentry named five resiliency skills:

  • Self-regulation, the ability to relax our bodies in the presence of a perceived threat. This can be a minimal relaxation, just for a moment, before we engage in the task needed. Gentry suggested the technique of relaxing the muscles in your pelvis, since those are the ones you have the most control over.
  • The ability to live by principles (intentionality): to decide how you want to be ahead of time, and to respond in that situation instead of react.
  • Perceptual maturation: The ability to see our environment as it actually is, instead of what we fear it to be
  • Connection and support
  • Self-care and revitalization

For more information, you can contact Gentry at eg@compassionunlimited.com or see his website at www.compassionunlimited.com.


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