Compassion fatigue is a condition suffered by those who help others and is characterized by a gradual decrease in that person’s ability to empathize with those they are helping.
Compassion fatigue is also known as vicarious traumatization or secondary traumatic stress. Although this condition may seem most common among those who work with trauma victims, such as EMTs, police, nurses, and even caregivers of family members suffering from chronic illness, teachers are also susceptible to compassion fatigue.
Symptoms and Causes
The symptoms of this condition are mental and physical exhaustion, self-doubt, decreased interactions with others, decreased pride in personal accomplishments at work, and even a long-lasting negative attitude. Compassion fatigue is different from burnout, as it comes on more quickly instead of emerging over time. Even a first-year teacher in a low-income school will find themselves dealing with behavior, family, and emotional problems in students who come from very dysfunctional home situations – without training to handle such challenges. Throw in the pressure of high test results, school schedule time constraints, and a lack of support from school administrators, and stress levels of teachers go through the roof quickly.
Even the most caring teacher becomes disheartened when facing classrooms of students with many different academic problems, as well as students who present behavior challenges due to the trauma or neglect they have suffered in their personal lives. Instead of teaching, teachers find themselves trying to deal with anxious, abusive, or frustrated students. Often educators struggle to go to work, become irritated easily, are disgusted that nothing is being accomplished, and lose compassion for – or become too involved with – their most needy students.
How to Cope
The first step for a teacher suffering from compassion fatigue is a difficult thing for anyone responsible for caring for others – take care of yourself.
- Begin by checking your emotional reactions and recognize the signs of compassion fatigue. If those symptoms are lasting longer than two to three weeks, find a support system to give you encouragement and perspective. Don’t become isolated.
- Coping strategies such as muscle relaxation, calm breathing techniques, and relaxation imagery can help with stress. Eat a healthy diet, exercise, and get enough sleep so that you are able to be at your best.
- In the classroom, maintain structure as much as possible to help both your students and yourself.
- Try to plan for difficult situations you know will probably arise, and have backup help ready if things get out of your control.
- Spend time, if possible, with students who are not going through traumatic stress.
- Make time for yourself, and reach out to friends and family.
- If your peers can’t help you, seek further help through a mental health professional.
The good news is that compassion fatigue has a faster recovery than long-term burnout, and is usually less severe if managed early. Allow yourself to heal from the effects of caring for your challenged students, and your heart, as well as your mind, will again open to the suffering students who need you most.