Empathy strain: time to renew your energy?

Health care providers work within a dynamic of caring relationships involving compassion and empathy. The term “compassion fatigue” was first coined in the early ‘90s, being described as the depletion or change in “the ability to nurture” among nurses. 

Over the past 30 years it has been researched to raise awareness of the toll caregiving takes on all health care workers. In order to reduce the impact of compassion fatigue over the past two years, educators in this field have tried to support front line teams to raise awareness of the personal impact of their work. 

They encourage all service providers to care for themselves while providing care to their patients and others. As the pandemic progressed, we began to recognize the increased strain on our health care workers. Compassion is our ability to recognize the suffering of others and when we do, we can take on their pain. Over time this may affect our ability to be empathetic.

Empathy is often described as the ability to understand other people’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves. Empathic strain is the term used to describe how people’s ability to relate to others can be negatively affected. This includes not only health care workers, but also unpaid caregivers such as parents and grandparents or anyone in a caregiving relationship. Prolonged stress, constant change and exposure to suffering and loss can lead to this strain. 

Empathic strain has both physical and emotional symptoms. Our bodies may have extra aches and pains – headaches, stomach upset and sleep difficulties to name a few. These can be warning signs; our body’s way of telling us to pay attention and take care of ourselves.  We may start to experience cognitive difficulties, like difficulty making decisions or trouble remembering details. We might even experience symptoms of anxiety, maybe depression. 

As we listen to others’ stories, we absorb their suffering. Our bodies, minds and spirits are impacted.  Other behavioural/psychological signs may include feeling emotionally “numb”, a reduced ability to feel empathy and even being resentful of others who appear to be enjoying themselves. We might feel as though we would like to avoid any chance of anyone telling us painful stories.

Indigenous groups refer to empathic strain as “soul loss.” In traditional North American teaching, it is said each time you heal someone, you give away a piece of yourself. Then at some point you will need healing.  

Caregivers are so good at taking care of others that we often forget to take care of ourselves.

Ultimately, we are responsible for replenishing ourselves to support our own health and wellbeing. 

What can we do to take better care of our bodies and minds? We start by raising our awareness and recognizing our red flags; know when we are not okay. By acknowledging the possibility of empathic strain, we can begin the journey back to health. It will involve an ongoing commitment to self-care, maintaining our wellness in a proactive and holistic way. 

We need to pay attention to our physical, emotional, spiritual, personal and psychological wellbeing. The basics of self-care start with a good balance of nutrition, sleep and movement. There are foods and activities that increase serotonin levels, improving mood and mental health. These include, walking, soaking in a warm bath, and eating more nuts and leafy green vegetables. It is also important to stay hydrated.

Take time to unwind, and reach out to others. Find time just for you to do something that replenishes you, whatever that may be. Be gentle with yourself. Turn off the constant barrage of news and social media information. Put your phone out of reach.

Share your ideas with others, you might help them renew their energy too.

Empathic strain builds over time. Now is the time to make this essential journey back to health.

What will you do for you today? 

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Elaine Griffin is a psychogeriatric resource consultant with the Alzheimer Society of Dufferin County. The “Open Mind” column is sponsored by community partners who are committed to raising awareness about mental health, reducing stigma and providing information about resources that can help. For local mental health resources/information, visit www.mdsgg.ca or call 1-844-HERE247.

Elaine Griffin