Can Your Experience Compassion Fatigue?

Kelly McGonigal in her presentation for the Mindful Healthcare Summit challenged the widely held belief that you cannot experience compassion fatigue. Many people contend that compassion fatigue does not occur because the heart is capable of endless kindness and love for others. Kelly maintains that motivation and goodness of heart are not sufficient to prevent the depression and burnout that can result from compassion fatigue. She asserts that compassion has to be supported by adequate self-care if it is to be sustained.

Compassion and the stress response

Kelly argues that compassion is like the stress response when viewed physiologically. Compassion floods the body with hormones such as dopamine and marshals the body’s energy to relieve the suffering of others. However, while this can be very energising and exciting in the short term, compassion takes its toll in the longer term both bodily and mentally, as we do not have endless physical and mental reserves.

The possibility of compassion fatigue can be increased where a helping professional or carer experiences vicarious trauma or moral distress – the latter being defined as being required to do things that clash with a person’s values or moral perspective, a frequently occurring ethical dilemma within the medical profession.

Compassion fatigue

Kelly suggests that compassion fatigue occurs when a person lacks the energy and resources to pursue their motivation to care in such way that it achieves personal satisfaction (activates the reward system). Outcomes achieved fall short of personal expectations and/or the expectations of others, despite the strength of the caring intention. The compassionate person feels exhausted and feels that the more they give the less they experience satisfaction – the gap between input of energy/time and the expected satisfaction increases, leading to burnout. The depletion of energy and satisfaction could be the result of factors outside the helper’s/carer’s control – such as structural blockages, breakdown in information exchange, overwork or under-resourcing.

Compassion needs nourishment

One of the issues that exacerbates the problem of compassion fatigue is the belief in the endless capacity of an individual to be compassionate through the goodness of their heart or the purity of their intentions. As a result of this false belief, helpers/carers fail to take the necessary actions to nourish themselves (and their compassionate action) and/or are reluctant to accept compassion extended to them by others.

Personal nourishment can take many forms – getting adequate sleep, meditation (especially self-compassion meditation), listening to relaxing/inspiring music, prayer (whatever form it takes) or drawing strength and healing from nature. It also requires an openness to receiving compassion from others – challenging false beliefs such as “no one else can do this”, “I will be seen to be weak if I accept help from others”, “I really shouldn’t pander to my own needs by having that short break or having a reasonable period for lunch”, “I can’t afford to become dependent on others for assistance”. Additionally, positive social connection– to offset the tendency to withdraw under extreme stress– is a critical source of self-nourishment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation our awareness of others’ suffering and our motivation to help are heightened. The capacity for compassionate action is not limitless and needs nourishment. Central to this nourishment is self-compassion.

____________________________________________

Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Body Scan Meditation

Body scan meditation is a quick and easy way to access your relaxation response, an effective counter to stress and your automatic fight or flight response. Body scan meditation has the advantage of being flexible – you can use it anywhere at any time. You don’t have to undertake an extended body scan to realise its benefits.

Different purposes for the body scan

Olivier Devroede, author of the Mindfulness Based Happiness blog, explains that body scan in the yoga tradition is used for relaxation, whereas in some mindfulness traditions, the purpose is the development of acceptance. Jon Kabat-Zinn also provides a “bodyscape meditation“, incorporating a body scan, that is designed to enable you to become more aware of your body and its sensations and, through this meditation practice, become grounded in the present more readily.

Diana Winston, Director of Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC) offers a brief, 3-minute body scan that can enable you to quickly wind back your disabling response to a stressful situation. It can serve as a regular practice, too, that can progressively build automatic awareness of body sensations and emotional responses. Diana also offers a 13-minute body scan meditation for sleep when you are going to bed. At other times, you might actually be trying to avoid sleeping during meditation.

The basics of a body scan

Body scan is something that can be short or extended, incorporated into other forms of meditation and used flexibly for different purposes. While the intention of body scan meditations may vary, they have several basic elements in common. These relate to being grounded bodily and mentally, noticing your breathing and paying attention to your body and its sensations.

  1. Being grounded bodily – often this is achieved by paying attention to your posture, ensuring you are comfortable and relaxed, and upright if seated in a chair. There may be many times when you are unaware of your posture which can be a form of slouch, whether you are sitting or standing. Focusing on becoming grounded bodily, can help rectify this tendency to slouch throughout the day.
  2. Being grounded mentally – this basically involves bringing your full attention to the process of a body scan and your specific intention in undertaking it.
  3. Noticing your breathing – this can be a simple act of being aware of your breath and its characteristics (such as slow or fast, deep or shallow), without any effort to control your breathing. It can also be a more conscious approach where you take a couple of deep breaths to aid the process of relaxation and being grounded in the present. A deeper breathing approach is lower-belly breathing which can be incorporated into your body scan.
  4. Paying attention to the pressure on your body – this initial approach to increasing bodily awareness, involves noticing the pressure from the floor or your chair on your body at different points, e.g. on your back, feet, buttocks, shoulders. This is a form of conscious grounding – noticing the impact of your immediate physical environment on your body.
  5. Paying attention to your bodily sensations – this is the core activity in a body scan, the other activities serves as a warm-up or preparatory exercise. Here you are exploring your body, looking for any points of tightness, tension, pain or contraction. The aim is to progressively release or soften these points to free your body from its stress response. Developing your awareness about these points of tension, can help you to more quickly become aware of a negative emotional reaction to a stressful situation.
  6. Paying attention to your feelings – becoming aware of your bodily sensations can give you insight into how you are feeling about a situation or interaction. Often, we hide negative emotions, which further exacerbates the tension in our bodies. If you can get in touch with your negative feelings through a body scan, you can name these feelings and, over time, successfully control them. This last step represents the deepest approach to body scan meditation and the most time consuming method, as you need to undertake the precursor activities to get in touch with your bodily sensations and be in an open frame of mind to name those feelings.

As we grow in mindfulness through the different forms of body scan meditation, we increase our capacity to focus, enhance our self-awarenesss, develop our relaxation response, improve our self-regulation and increase our capacity to be in the moment.

____________________________________________

Image source: courtesy of Ataner007 on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.