It’s hard to be selfless.
Which makes it hard to fathom that some people have to be selfless for a living.
Nurses, surgeons, doctors and counselors, just to name a few.
In each of these care-giving occupations, the professional takes on a lot of the stress or trauma that their patients or clients experience. This concept is called secondary traumatic stress, or Compassion Fatigue. The latter term was coined by Dr. Charles Figley in 1995.
Compassion fatigue and alcoholism tend to go hand-in-hand. Sometimes being overly empathetic can take a toll on us, and alcohol or drugs might be the go-to method to quiet the distress.
What is compassion fatigue?
“Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper,” Figley said.
Now a psychology and mental health academic, Figley experienced secondary traumatic stress syndrome while he was a first responder during the war in Vietnam. Wounded soldiers described injuries and horrifying acts of violence to Figley while he was treating them. Though he hadn’t experienced such combat firsthand, he began to internalize the trauma that others experienced. It greatly impacted his own well being.
Compassion fatigue affects many dimensions of a caregiver’s well being. This includes spirituality and worldview, cognitive abilities and emotional responses, and identity, sense of self-worth and overall morale.
Compassion fatigue and addiction
During episodes of compassion fatigue, caregivers may experience depression and isolation, and are at increased risk of using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
A study of compassion fatigue and substance use among Jordanian nurses was published in 2018. It found that nurses who use cigarettes, sleeping pills, energy drinks, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs reported significantly higher levels of compassion fatigue than nurses who did not use these substances.
Compassion fatigue has also been known to impact journalists who frequently interview people who have been through trauma, and war correspondents.
In her 2015 memoir, “Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story,” human rights reporter Mac McClelland writes about the impacts of witnessing so much suffering during an assignment in Haiti following a devastating earthquake in 2010. Developing a nasty drinking habit was one of her coping mechanisms.
The American Psychiatric Association defines post-traumatic stress disorder as a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.
While McClelland was technically diagnosed with PTSD, her story is representative of the many reporters who experience compassion fatigue and subsequent alcohol abuse after witnessing similar situations. The underlying causes are very similar.
Where can I find addiction counseling near me?
During a TED Talk in 2017, Patricia Smith, the founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness project, said, “Caregivers are not good at asking for help.”
Asking for help is hard no matter who you are. For nurses, doctors, teachers and more, the idea of leaving work can seem like an impossibility. You may feel guilty or that you are abandoning your patients or students. But if you are struggling with drug or alcohol use, you need help too. Your clients, patients and students will be happy for you.
Many who struggle with addiction have co-occurring mental health disorders, also known as dual diagnosis. People with co-occurring disorders can, and do, recover.
If you are struggling with compassion fatigue and have turned to drugs or alcohol as coping mechanisms, there is help. All you have to do is ask.
At Amatus Recovery Centers across the country, we offer the full continuum of addiction-related care. From residential detox treatment programs to rid your body of the harmful toxins of drugs and alcohol, to partial hospitalization programs to give you the strength and courage to start a life in recovery, to outpatient aftercare to continue your successful journey in sobriety.
By connecting with Amatus Recovery Centers, you will be in the hands of one of the fastest growing behavioral health organizations offering integrated treatment services in the country. You will gain access to a wide range of support groups and resources for long lasting recovery.
In addition to treatment for alcohol and drug addiction, Amatus Recovery Centers offers treatment for primary anxiety disorders, personality disorders and other mental disorders.