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Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Vicarious Trauma

When coping with life with an alcoholic or addicted person, individuals often experience emotional burnout or compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue has been roughly defined as the “cost of caring” for others in emotional distress. The “helping” field has begun to realize that those who play a significant “helper” role in another person’s life are profoundly affected by the work they do.

This type of burnout can be caused by direct exposure to traumatic events or secondary exposure, such as hearing their addicted loved one talk about the trauma they have experienced. Working alongside loved ones who are chronically in despair and witnessing their inability to improve their very difficult life circumstances can trickle down and become the individual’s personal despair. The weight of wiping away someone else’s pain can result in all that pain being wiped all over themselves instead. Although compassion and empathy is a desirable and loving quality, this very process of empathy is what makes helpers vulnerable to being profoundly affected and even possibly damaged by their efforts. This is all too common in the addiction world.

Compassion Fatigue vs. Vicarious Trauma vs. Burnout

These feelings can be classified as compassion fatigue, burnout, and vicarious trauma. What is the difference between compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and burnout? These three terms are complementary and yet different from one another.

  • Compassion Fatigue (CF) refers to the intense emotional and physical destruction that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate their own capability for self-compassion.
  • The term vicarious trauma (VT) was coined by Pearlman & Saakvitne in 1995 to describe the shift in perspective that occurs in helping professionals (or loved ones in addicted individuals’ lives) when they work with people who have experienced trauma. These helpers notice that their fundamental beliefs about the world are altered and significantly damaged by being consistently exposed to traumatic material.
  • Burnout is a term that has been used since the early 1980s to describe the emotional and physical exhaustion that individuals can experience when they have felt powerless and overwhelmed at a task that they cannot master. Burnout can be inevitable when working to heal someone from addiction because loved ones are powerless to help their addicted loved ones and will never achieve the goal solely from their efforts. A difference here, however, is that burnout does not necessarily mean that their view of the world has been damaged, or that they have lost the ability to feel compassion for themselves or others.

Burnout can be resolved by adjusting the work and effort an individual is putting into a cause that is not satisfying or achievable. Switching their role in an addicted individual’s life can provide immediate relief to someone suffering from role-related burnout in the dynamic of alcoholism or addiction.

One important protective action for CF and VT could be learning holistically about the addicted person’s circumstances. The more that they are able to learn about the situation, the easier it is for them to prevent the impact of the addicted person’s personal feelings.

Compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma have much more depth than just being tired and overworked. CF and VT are often caused by a conflict between an individual’s deepest values and the support that they feel obligated to deliver. This phenomenon is called moral distress.

Signs of Fatigue & Vicarious Trauma

There has been lots of research done on this topic and researchers have discovered that when individuals are overtaxed by the nature of their efforts, they are likely to begin to show symptoms that are very similar to those of traumatized addicted individuals. Such symptoms have the potential to negatively affect the dynamic of their relationships and create a toxic home life. Some of the signs of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Intrusive imagery
  • Feeling discouraged about the world
  • Hopelessness
  • Dispirited
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Physical or mental exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • An overall lack of caring for themselves or others
  • Hypersensitivity or complete insensitivity
  • Anxiety

What Causes CF and VT

There are many reasons why helping professionals and addicted individuals’ loved ones have the potential to develop compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. The 1996 book, “Transforming the Pain” written by Saakvitne and Pearlman states that an individual’s current life circumstances, history, coping style, and personality type all affect how compassion fatigue may impact them. Helpers are not immune to the pain in their own lives and, in fact, many studies have shown that those who help other people are more vulnerable to life changes, such as divorce and addiction than people who deal with less stressful situations.

Those in the helper role often deal with things that most other people do not want to hear about or deal with. Such people spend their time caring for people who are not seen, valued, or understood in society because of their disease and addiction. Exposure to these constant negative environments often results in compassion fatigue, burnout, and general unhappiness. Dealing with people on a daily basis who are experiencing chronic crises and who have difficulty controlling their emotions can be draining and hopeless. The good news is that individuals can protect themselves from these feelings when dealing with an addicted individual in their life.

Managing Vicarious Trauma and Compassion Fatigue

Organizational health researchers are working on finding the most effective strategies to reduce, mitigate, and prevent CF and VT in helping those closest to addicts. First off, if the helper can better control their schedule when they help the addict, then they are more likely to relieve symptoms of CF and VT. In addition, this helps reduce trauma exposure and direct contact with the addicted individual in an environment that only causes more harm than good.

Those who constantly lend support to an addicted individual can also decrease their risk of burnout, CF, and VT by debriefing such emotions through conversation with a secure supportive person or by journaling about their emotions. This strategy is used by many health professionals and hospital staff to release any lingering trauma left on their shoulders after helping someone. The most simple way to reduce the risk of burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma is to reduce the amount of time an individual spends helping an addict.

Personal changes in an individual’s lifestyle can also aid in avoiding burnout, CF, and VT. The most helpful personal strategies include maintaining a strong social support system both at home and at work, increasing self-awareness through mindfulness meditation and narrative work such as journaling, and regular self-care. These behaviors may seem easy and quite simple, but for a helper who constantly puts others’ needs before their own, self-care and such practices are often an afterthought.

Compassion fatigue is a process that develops over time, so healing from CF is also a process that develops over time. For some lucky people, taking a holiday, getting a massage, or taking a sick day is enough to begin to expedite the healing. For most helpers, significant life changes and putting their own health and wellness at the top of their priority list are critical. If such strategies are not enough, and the symptoms begin to worsen, compassion fatigue and burnout can lead to very serious problems. Symptoms can worsen to depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. At this point, it becomes clear that an individual needs help and should seek professional help.

Preventing the consequences of being an addicted individual’s “helper” is do-able. It is important to focus on oneself as much as one would focus on others. It is very easy for the parent or family member of a drug addict to forget about themselves entirely in an effort to help their loved one in every way, but doing so only leads to burnout. In sum, here are practical ways to prevent and cope:

  • Practice self-care
  • Set healthy boundaries
  • Do what makes one happy
  • Commit to journaling as an outlet
  • Take a break when needed
  • Say “no” guilt-free
  • Seek help for oneself

Overall, secondary trauma is the emotional and psychological impact experienced through indirect exposure to the details of the traumatic experiences of others. The positive thing about enrolling the addicted individual in your life at a professional rehab facility is that mental health professionals can relieve and diminish the effects from secondary trauma felt as burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma.

Addicted individuals seeking help at Boardwalk Recovery Center give the helpers in their lives the opportunity to practice loving detachment and stay clear of burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma while the individual is in treatment.

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