Responding to disasters and other emergencies is important and often rewarding work. While serving communities as a crisis counselor, you may join disaster survivors on their journey toward greater resilience. However, you may also experience stress together with disaster survivors, which can lead to compassion fatigue. It is important you learn and use techniques throughout disaster response to stay healthy and effective as a crisis counselor.
Compassion fatigue is a combination of burnout and secondary traumatic stress.
- Burnout includes three parts: feelings of exhaustion, negative or cynical attitudes toward work, and a sense of not doing well or being effective in your work.
- Secondary traumatic stress may happen when you hear of trauma others have experienced, especially when many people tell you about their traumatic experiences. Symptoms of secondary traumatic stress may include avoiding things that remind you of the trauma you’ve heard about, or feeling very keyed up or on alert a lot of the time.
Compassion fatigue can affect you in many ways.
If you have a history of trauma or exposure to traumatic events during a disaster, you may be more likely to experience compassion fatigue.
Signs and Symptoms
Compassion fatigue signs and symptoms vary, and you may not have them all. They include the following feelings and experiences:
- Helplessness, being extremely tired, and feeling overwhelmed
- Disorientation or confusion
- Frustration, cynicism, or anger and irritability
- Physical effects, such as shortness of breath, increased headaches, heart palpitations, trouble falling asleep, or muscle tension
If these signs and symptoms continue for more than 2 weeks or are affecting your quality of life, you should seek out professional help. SAMHSA offers several websites and toll-free phone lines to help you find treatment in your area.
As a crisis counselor, you support disaster survivors in building resilience, finding healthy coping methods, and practicing self-care. You can apply these same strategies to help avoid compassion fatigue and increase your likelihood of compassion satisfaction.
Self-care Strategies for Crisis Counselors
To help prevent compassion fatigue and foster compassion satisfaction, use these strategies:
- Focus on the four core components of resilience (adequate sleep, healthy eating, regular physical activity, and active relaxation). Create a self-care plan that addresses each component.
- Develop positive relationships with other crisis counselors. Celebrate successes and mourn sorrows as a team. Ask a coworker to be a self-care buddy, or plan to attend regular group check-ins.
- Schedule time for relaxation, meditation, and rest. Practice breathing exercises and other stress management techniques regularly. Take breaks and time away from work and the disaster area as needed.
- Stay in regular contact with friends and loved ones.
- Stay informed on resources and events for crisis counselors.
Strategies for Supervisors and Team Leads
To help crisis counselors avoid compassion fatigue and increase compassion satisfaction, supervisors and team leads can use these strategies:
- Plan regular meetings with crisis counselors to allow them to share their experiences and concerns.
- Regularly provide opportunities for trainings, peer support groups, and debriefing sessions for crisis counselor teams.
- Encourage crisis counselors to take breaks and stay in touch with friends and loved ones.
- Encourage crisis counselors to make connections and support each other through team meetings, buddy systems, or team events.
- Provide materials and resources for self-care to crisis counselors throughout their service period. Follow up with counselors once the program is over.
Use the following resources to learn more about compassion fatigue and self-care:
- Emergency Responders: Tips for taking care of yourself (web page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Individual Resilience (online fact sheet from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response [ASPR])
- Self Care for Healthcare Workers Modules (training modules from the ASPR Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange [TRACIE])
- Stress Management Techniques, Healthy Coping Strategies, Breathing Exercise (video from SAMHSA)
- Tips for Disaster Responders: Preventing and Managing Stress (tip sheet from SAMHSA; also available in Spanish)
- Tips for Disaster Responders: Returning to Work (tip sheet from SAMHSA; also available in Spanish)
- Tips for Disaster Responders: Understanding Compassion Fatigue (tip sheet from SAMHSA; also available in Spanish)
- Tips for Families of Returning Disaster Responders: Adjusting to Life at Home (tip sheet from SAMHSA; also available in Spanish)