First of all, to all of the caregivers in the trenches, especially our healthcare workers and first responders: You have dedicated your lives to helping others and you are valued and validated. Please remember your lives matter, too. It isn’t selfish or self-centered to keep yourselves safe. Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place.
Since the coronavirus crisis began, I have heard from caregivers across the country and beyond. There is confusion, frustration and concern about how to provide authentic, sustainable self-care daily when our lives have been turned upside down. This is especially true of our dedicated colleagues working in healthcare. They are experiencing this nightmare up close and personal.
So, here are some suggestions that I hope will help lower compassion fatigue levels. And maybe even lift your compassion satisfaction levels. It’s a long read, but I hope worth every minute of your time.
In 1976, Dr. Bill Hettler, co-founder of the National Wellness Institute in the United States, developed a model of wellness. He included six forms: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, occupational and social. Environmental wellness was added later.
If there is one uplifting thing about our situation, it’s that some of us now have time. Too often the excuse for devising our personal self-care plan is a lack of time. That is no longer the case. To that end, we will use Dr. Hettler’s model of wellness to translate our thoughts and concerns into action. We’ll take each dimension and create a plan that creates good health (freedom from disease) and wellness (a dynamic and holistic process of growth and change; thriving).
Right now, this dimension is at the top of the list. In order to be able to strengthen our immune systems against the virus, we must be in the best possible physical shape. Getting there includes eating well, restful sleep, and exercise. Given the directives we are following, these three behaviors present real challenges. As far as good nutrition, it helps to plan our meals each day, cut our calorie intake, and use restraint when reaching for the pleasure of choice. Difficult, but doable. Physical exercise has been curtailed for many, especially those who frequent the gym. The answer to keeping up levels of exercise is adaptability. We know what we can’t do, but are we aware of what we can do? I’m a walker and continue to walk a couple of miles each day. If the directive comes down that we are not permitted outside to walk, I will go up and down the stairs in my house. I will walk in place, if necessary. Have a plan if your form of exercise is denied, and carry it out. Restful sleep can only be accomplished when we are as stress-free as possible. Hopefully, the following tips will help.
Stress levels are sky high, for good reason. No one knows how this crisis will play out in the future. My Number One suggestion: Limit watching TV news, reading newspapers and following social media sites. This doesn’t mean burying our heads in the sand. It means limiting our exposure to traumatizing output. The media is sliming all of us. That means that they are sharing the gory details in order to sensationalize and create fear. I love the news. This isn’t a war against the media. It’s a stand for self-care.
We have been given the gift of technology. Use it. As social animals, we can isolate for only so long. We need interaction with friends, family and others in our lives. Love growing vegetables? Set up a Facebook group. Dislike working alone at home? Connect with your work colleagues and work together online. Missing your favorite elderly aunt? Set up a Skype or Zoom session. Miss sharing daily updates with your BFF? Time to post favorite times together on Instagram. Wish you could fix that broken relationship? Write a letter, in long hand. I’ve heard of working colleagues enjoying virtual “get a beer after work” sessions. My granddaughter turned one a few weeks ago. Canceling her first birthday party was disappointing to say the least, but my son and his partner gathered both sets of grandparents on a FaceTime chat, and together we sang Happy Birthday and watched the little one dive into her birthday cake. The memory of that interaction will last a lifetime.
Dr. Badri Richki, a psychiatrist and clinical professor of medicine, University of Calgary, says it best: Spirituality is the life we live inside ourselves versus the life we live outside ourselves through work and play and family. He states that spirituality can certainly be obtained through religious practice, but the practice is much broader and involves “learning how to be more forgiving, grateful and compassionate, to be kinder and less judgmental.” Amen.
Read. Write. Journal daily. Work puzzles. Play games with your kids. Take on online course. Ask an interesting question on Facebook and get a discussion going (no negativity allowed). Do internet research on a subject you’ve always found fascinating but never had time to pursue. Organize all of those photos and recipes. Get out that guitar and play once again. Studies show that music changes our brain – for the better. Our neighbors in Spain and Italy are singing and playing instruments from their balconies to share the healing music brings.
Is this a good time to rethink/reconsider your job? Of course. It’s always a good time to think about how you spend your time. Writer Annie Dillard put it best: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Are we spending our lives in ways that promote wellness and happiness for ourselves and our loved ones? There is now time to research options and check on educational offerings. If you are working from home missing the office, your work, and your high levels of productivity, chances are you are a good match. Are there ways you can better your opportunities at work? Are there helpful books to offer some new ideas on how to increase productivity once everyone is back on the job? Is there some way we can organize or develop new ways of doing things so when we return to work we can hit the ground running? Think broadly and creatively.
Look around your environment inside and out. Are there things you can do to make your surroundings more pleasant, safer, and more environmentally sound? It’s time to declutter, and remove items that no longer serve us. Go paperless whenever possible. Remove old magazines and articles you’ll never get around to reading. According to the Australian Psychological Association, “it is clear that the well-being and integrity of natural ecosystems and the biophysical environment are integral to human health and well-being.” Beautify your garden with colorful and native flowers to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and dragonflies. Plant and nurture vegetables that are appropriate for your climate zone. Feed the birds. Create spaces where you can sit in the garden and watch nature unfold. Weather permitting, eat meals outdoors.
We are all experiencing new territory in our lives. If we suffer from high levels of compassion fatigue, this crisis holds the power to disrupt our well-being even further. If our energy is low, that’s understandable. Take things a little slower. Rest. Nap even more. It is imperative that we work now to sustain our energies for the time when we will need to rebuild. Believe me, that time will come.
And don’t forget, you are not alone. We are all in this together.
Patricia Smith has spent the last 20 years speaking nationally and internationally to caregivers in all the helping professions about stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. She has authored five books on the subject including the award-winning To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving and the recently published Stress, Compassion Fatigue and Burnout Handling in Veterinary Practice. She presented a Tedx talk entitled Navigating the Path to Wellness: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving. She resides in Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands, Washington.