Do you ever feel like you’re running on empty? Maybe you feel like your workload is taking a toll on your mental or physical health, and you’re just not able to bounce back as you had hoped? You’re probably already aware that compassion fatigue can happen to any nurse at any point along the career path. But when it happens to you, self-doubt and self-criticism can creep into your thoughts. When going through this profound state of stress, it’s valuable to remember there is no stereotypical profile of what a nurse with compassion fatigue looks like, and it’s not a reflection of how committed or competent you are in the profession.

Let’s take a look at some myths surrounding compassion fatigue so you can experience a greater sense of well-being when you’re at home or work.

Myth 1. Compassion fatigue is a character flaw.

This is simply not true. Although your self-identity may be intertwined with your role as a nurse, compassion fatigue isn’t the result of a character flaw in you. You are a hard worker, and you care for your patients with everything you’ve got. However, if your body is showing signs of physical and emotional exhaustion, anxiety and worry, depression, anger, irritability, lack of joy, or any other sign, it’s time for you pay attention to it. Your body is telling you to recharge your internal battery, and, perhaps, scale back on your workload.

Myth 2. You need to work harder to overcome compassion fatigue.

On the contrary. While working harder may be the default setting to get some people through the day, many nurses tend to put others’ needs above their own, further engaging in energy-draining activities. When compassion fatigue creeps up on you, it’s not telling you to do more. Rather, it’s telling you your work-life balance has gotten out of whack, and you need to reexamine it.

Myth 3. I still feel compassion for my patients, so compassion fatigue must not pertain to me.

In an online article, American Nurse Today noted that nurses reported feeling both compassion fatigue and compassion for their patients at the same time. “If anything, the more compassion a nurse feels, the greater the risk that she or he will experience emotional saturation or compassion fatigue,” the article said. Try to recognize the other areas where you may be showing signs of fatigue. Do you find that your colleagues are difficult to work with? Are you thinking about going home as soon as you get to work? Are you concerned you might make an error while on the job? These point to subtler signs that you’re experiencing compassion fatigue, even if you still feel empathetic when caring for your patients.

Myth 4. It’s my job to care for others first and myself second.

For many nurses, this idea seems like a selfless act while working within the health care community. In reality, when you implement consistent self-care practices, acknowledge what things make you feel overwhelmed, and cultivate the support you need both inside and outside of work, you reduce your risk of developing compassion fatigue. “Perhaps the most important way to prevent or reduce compassion fatigue is to take care of yourself. As nurses, we work hard and really need our breaks. We need to eat, and to take time for ourselves without being interrupted by alarms, patients, or colleagues. We also need our time off, for our mental and physical well-being,” stated American Nurse Today.

Bottom line? Understand that compassion fatigue can sneak up on you, and its symptoms vary from person to person. It’s not indicative of how skilled you are as a clinician, and there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to finding your way back from it. It’s important to know recovery will likely require time along with some adjustments to your lifestyle.

Jennifer Lelwica Buttaccio

Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio, OTR/L, is a Chicago-based, freelance lifestyle writer, licensed occupational therapist, and certified Pilates instructor. Her expertise is in health, wellness, fitness, and chronic illness management.

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