Overcoming Compassion Fatigue

Andy had always been an energetic and dedicated family physician. Now, at 38, he’s tired, cynical and lonely. He’s angry at the health care system for forcing him to see more patients in less time and annoyed with his patients for what he perceives to be their increasingly demanding natures. Although his relationships with his patients once thrived, they no longer seem to give him the same satisfaction. Even talking to his wife, who’s always been a supportive partner, has not relieved his feelings of intense isolation.

Andy has a form of burnout called compassion fatigue, a deep physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion accompanied by acute emotional pain. Whereas physicians with burnout adapt to their exhaustion by becoming less empathetic and more withdrawn, compassion-fatigued physicians continue to give themselves fully to their patients, finding it difficult to maintain a healthy balance of empathy and objectivity.

Those who have experienced compassion fatigue describe it as being sucked into a vortex that pulls them slowly downward. They have no idea how to stop the downward spiral, so they do what they’ve done since medical school: They work harder and continue to give to others until they’re completely tapped out.

However, even for Andy, there is hope.

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