Helping hands need a break, too: How to lend support without burning out

Social workers know "compassion fatigue" is a risk of the job, and have learned ways stay healthy and empathetic.
Hanna Barczyk for NPR

Feeling overwhelmed? Maybe the parent of a preschooler in your family just called to say they need extra help with child care, and a sick neighbor wants to know if you can pick up some groceries for her. Meanwhile, your best friend keeps calling, wanting to vent.

In less stressful times, perhaps, you'd have jumped to help out and lend an ear. But after months of social isolation, juggling work demands, and caring for loved ones, the balance has started to tip. Suddenly your own need for emotional support is outweighing your capacity for kindness.

That's understandable, and OK. If you're feeling numb or overburdened these days in response to another's pain or request for help, that doesn't make you unkind. What you're feeling could instead be what we mental health professionals call "compassion fatigue."

Anxiety, sadness, and low self-worth can also be symptoms of this sort of emotional exhaustion, the American Institute of Stress notes in guidance to therapists. Often we associate this stress condition with counselors and other health care workers, but the American Psychological Association warns that anyone who continually cares for others or who witnesses trauma is also at risk.

Research shows compassion fatigue can be successfully treated — with stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation, as well as with therapy. The key is learning how to recognize the symptoms so that you can get help.

When the two of us — a psychologist and a social worker — feel like we have "nothing left to give," supporting our own grieving friends or caring for a sick relative can feel like running a marathon with sore muscles. But showing compassion — and avoiding emotional burnout — doesn't have to be painful for therapists or anyone else. As Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki notes in his book The War for Kindness, "empathy is a skill we can all strengthen through effort."

Here are some exercises we use to keep ourselves fresh that might help you replenish your empathy stores, too.

Social workers know "compassion fatigue" is a risk of the job, and have learned ways stay healthy and empathetic.
Hanna Barczyk for NPR

Shift your perspective

How we perceive someone's suffering can impact our own wellbeing. In one study, researchers found that individuals who feel someone's pain may be more likely to experience distress than those who think about how the person is feeling. Apparently, when we not only imagine ourselves in the suffering person's shoes but actually feel as they do, the body's stress response gets triggered.

The solution is to get a little psychological distance between your thoughts and feelings by trying a technique called, "cognitive reappraisal," which is reframing how you see a stressful situation. Research suggests it can help you diffuse negative emotions, which can make a real difference physically.

For instance, if your dear friend's heartache feels like your own, pause and ask yourself: "What are some of the different feelings they might be experiencing right now?" If their sorrow overtakes you, take a few deep breaths, or reach out to them to ask, "What do you need right now?"

Both tactics can help you recognize your friend's point of view, researchers who study empathy say, while tamping down your own stress response.

Social workers know "compassion fatigue" is a risk of the job, and have learned ways stay healthy and empathetic.
Hanna Barczyk for NPR

Show up in small ways

When someone's suffering is immense, it's easy to feel you have to show up in grand ways. When you hear a friend has cancer, for instance, you may feel you need to jump in to set up a meal train, and send daily text messages and flowers. When a coworker loses their home to wildfire or flood, your first impulse may be to organize a fundraiser or a clothing drive. But if you're also struggling to keep your own life and household afloat, these well-meant gestures may be too much for you.

The good news: Your acts of kindness don't have to be huge for others to feel nurtured. In a 2017 study, 495 men and women answered a series of questions about what makes them feel loved. Results showed that the participants saw human connection as more meaningful expressions of care than receiving lavish gifts.

Start by deciding how much time you can spare, and identify kind acts that sync with your schedule. If you're working full-time and helping your children with remote learning, 30 minutes may be your max, and that's OK. Decide on a few gestures, such as sending a handwritten card or a gift certificate for groceries. Or send a text message that says, "I'm sorry you're going through this. I'm thinking of you."

Social workers know "compassion fatigue" is a risk of the job, and have learned ways stay healthy and empathetic.
Hanna Barczyk for NPR

Practice self-compassion

When we feel compassion fatigue, it's because our desire and ability to help are incompatible.

If a friend's been in an accident or is seriously ill, for example, you may wish you could drive them to every medical appointment, even though devoting that much time may not be realistic for you. That can set up a negative loop if the guilt and shame of not being able to meet your own standards keeps you from doing anything at all – which only amplifies your feelings of self-loathing. The result: Nobody is helped.

Learn instead to start with self-compassion, which psychologist, Kristin Neff defines as "personal acceptance, regardless if we succeed or fail." That can help break this cycle of self-blame and help deploy your empathy for others. With self-compassion guiding us, we may say: "At this moment, I accept that I'm exhausted. It's OK to take care of myself," or "I accept that I can't do everything, but I'll help in small ways."

If self-directed kindness is challenging, Neff recommends imagining a friend who's in a dilemma similar to the one you're facing. What advice might you give? You'd probably be kind and understanding, which can serve as a reminder to treat yourself that way, too.

Social workers know "compassion fatigue" is a risk of the job, and have learned ways stay healthy and empathetic.
Hanna Barczyk for NPR

Enlist the help of others

Showing up for others doesn't mean you have to manage someone's difficulty all by yourself. In times of grief, people benefit from the support of a community, research suggests. In a study of 678 bereaved individuals, researchers found that having the support of friends, family, and community helpers made a more significant difference than having just one professional's help.

So, if a lonely neighbor needs company, see if someone in their social bubble can pay them a visit that day, or have a tech-savvy friend set up a video chat. Other friends who bake can leave cookies on their doorstep, and those who enjoy writing can pen heartfelt notes.

An online support group is another resource you might help your neighbor tap. Directories like Support Groups Central and Psychology Today provide a list of groups for people coping with depression, anxiety, or grief. It can help to connect, even virtually, with a community of people who share the same struggles.

During this year of collective suffering, we need each other more than ever. Expressing empathy in small ways, while also extending kindness toward ourselves, can once again make helping other people feel like a joy, instead of a burden. And cultivating joy in your life can make any burden you're carrying feel lighter, too.

Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga. Kelsey Crowe teaches social work at California State University and is the author of "There Is No Good Card For This: What To Say And Do When Life Is Scary, Awful And Unfair To People You Love."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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