Theology Thursday: Understanding Compassion Fatigue

woman suffering from compassion fatigue

For most of us, life is like a normal whitewater rafting trip. As we travel down this river of life, we experience times when the water is calm, peaceful and serene. All seems good, right and stress free. Our greatest concern is whether we have put enough suntan lotion on. Then the rapids come. We are ready for this. We have trained for this. We will survive. The calm waters will soon return. The difficult rapids are only temporary. In fact, we may even enjoy the challenge because we are confident, mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:4). Bring on the rapids!

This is how life should be. A rafting trip full of good experiences with some challenges and trials along the way that help to build character and increase our confidence. If only life was always like that for everyone. Sadly, it is not.

Now imagine you are the whitewater rafting guide on this wonderful trip. Your task is to provide a great experience for your clients and to keep them safe. When the rapids come, you guide your group safely through the dangerous waters. You take great joy in serving them because you love what you do. You signed an agreement to serve and protect and you aim to live up to that agreement.

One day, as the rafting guide, you take a group out. All begins well but soon things change. The rapids come sooner and last longer. They just go on and on with no apparent end in sight. Around every bend in the river are just more rapids. The white water is no longer there to build character and instill confidence. It is intent on destroying those in your care. You do all you can to protect them, to keep them safe, but you are tired, you are exhausted, you become numb. The rapids continue.

Overcoming the Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

There is a name for our imaginary rafting guide’s experience. It is called compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue occurs when we are in a constant state of service to others. We are overly exhausted and burnt out. We feel irritable, and we may even begin to feel numb toward those we are providing help. It is not a healthy situation. Unfortunately, sometimes we cannot avoid it due to life’s circumstances. So, what can we do?

Suggestions to Help the Helper

Below are some suggestions to help the helpers of the world. These individuals are our full-time caregivers, our service professionals (social workers, police offices, fire fighters, medical professionals, teachers, pastors, etc.) and anyone who, day in and day out, is providing constant care for others.

  • Seek Professional Help: The advice given below is from a layman and not a professional counselor. Compassion fatigue can be very serious, so it is crucial to seek professional help when needed.
  • Recognize the Helper Needs Help: Most of us understand the need to help others who are struggling; however, we do not always consider the importance of helping the helpers. No one can be a full-time caregiver 100% of the time. Finding ways to provide downtime for our caregivers is essential. It is also important for helpers to schedule regular breaks for themselves for their own mental health, and they should not feel guilty for doing so.
  • Bear One Another’s Burdens: Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Do you know someone who is a whitewater rafting guide going through never-ending rapids? How might you help them? Prayerfully consider steps you might be able to take to help bear that person’s burden.
  • Complain to God: The Bible is full of laments to God (see Psalm 51). There is even a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations. Laments are a passionate expression of grief and sorrow. We live in a fallen world which means life is not fair. Some people are dealt a very bad hand that this side of eternity they may not be able to overcome. Our perfect, righteous, and loving God understands this. Complain away! It can be therapeutic.
  • Seeking Contentment: Since none of us fully know what another person is going through, it is difficult to suggest a person learns how to be content. However, learning how to be content in whatever circumstances come our way is biblical (Philippians 4:11-13). Not easy, but biblical.
  • Eternity in Our Hearts: Sometimes it feels like a cop-out to discuss eternity instead of trying to fix the problem now. But we must recognize that not all problems can be fixed this side of Heaven. We live in a fallen world where bad things happen to good people. Thankfully, as Christians, we have hope of an eternity spent with God where we no longer will be paddling through never-ending rapids.

Compassion fatigue is real and we all probably experience it to some extent. It is healthy to recognize the symptoms of compassion fatigue (burn out, exhaustion, feeling numb toward others especially those for whom we care) and to seek support. As Christian brothers and sisters, it is also important to recognize those who may be suffering from compassion fatigue. Remember, it is much easier to navigate through the rapids when multiple people are paddling together.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.