Therapists and Compassion Fatigue


February is Psychology Month, a celebration of the profession and the opportunity to highlight how these professionals work to help people live healthy, happy lives. But what is psychology? It’s a broad field, rooted in science that seeks to help people understand their thoughts, feelings and actions.

Psychology is a thread that is tied tightly to both the topic of trauma and the work that both Kim Barthel and Theo Fleury do.Whether personally or professionally, psychology has a big impact on how we process trauma and really, all of our emotions and experiences. To bring focus to those people who work tirelessly in this field, we are going to discuss why self-care is an important practice for therapists and other professionals in the helping genres.

The amazing people who dedicate their work to helping others: medical professionals, therapists, first-responders, etc. are exposed to trauma on a daily basis. But what happens when the constant exposure to the trauma of others, starts to take a toll on them personally?

This type of response to trauma is known as compassion fatigue, which is also referred to as secondary traumatic stress, where professionals may develop symptoms as an indirect response to their client or patient’s suffering.

Research has shown that nearly 87 per cent of emergency response personnel have reported symptoms after exposure to highly distressing events, and up to 90 per cent of caregivers and psychologists say their family life has suffered as a result of their work.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue can look similar to that of PTSD and can be just as detrimental to caregivers and professionals. So how can mental health and health professionals protect themselves?

“Compassion and boundaries are necessary for self-love and self-care. Being present to suffering but not being engulfed by suffering requires mindfulness and detachment from the client’s suffering. This skill requires practice. Science reveals that people who practice mindfulness have brains that are able to hold space for suffering without simultaneously traumatizing themselves.” — Kim Barthel

While this might seem easier said than done, Kim says this notion takes practice and mindfulness. Here are two very simple ways to check in with yourself when you start to notice yourself responding to others’ trauma:

  • Take a break: give yourself permission to pause or take a short break. This can be as simple as stopping what you’re doing and feeling your body, slowing down and taking deep breaths. This helps you to regulate your level of stress. You will also be leading by example for your client too, showing self-care is beneficial for both of you.
  • Reconnect: it is common for caregivers to dissociate, so in staying connected or reconnecting to the current situation, you are allowing yourself to be present, for yourself and your client. Reconnect both to your own identity but also your physical presence.

If you’re interested in learning more about trauma and healing, read our blog. We love communicating with those who work in the trauma field, if you have a story about how ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’ is being used in your work, please share with us on Facebook and Twitter. You can find out more about ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’ on our website.

– Written by Amber Craig


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