Helping Empower Our Officers in Blue: Overcoming Compassion Fatigue and Breaking Stigma

Helping Empower Our Officers in Blue: Overcoming Compassion Fatigue and Breaking Stigma

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

When someone sees trauma everywhere they look, every day at work, compassion fatigue is bound to set in. In the world of law enforcement and emergency services, police and other front-line workers navigate unthinkably tragic circumstances daily. This exposure to human suffering and distressing events is relentlessly challenging, and it gives rise to what we call “compassion fatigue.”

Compassion fatigue is a type of empathetic burnout that happens when individuals work in the helping fields such as law enforcement. Individuals who enter these fields have an innate sense of empathy and dedication to protect and serve the people around them.

When a person begins to feel compassion fatigue, it prevents them from empathizing with others around them. This detached mental state can impact their decisions and life choices. Additionally, a person often will begin to neglect their own self-care.

What Exactly Is “Compassion Fatigue?”

Imagine having to witness the worst failings and the most awful tragedies that can befall a person. Think of what it would be like to endure it every day, like a never-ending Groundhog Day. The psychological consequences of dealing with these circumstances would be too much for most people to bear or recover from.

However, it is exactly these circumstances that emergency services workers endure daily that lead to compassion fatigue. These men and women see the worst that humanity can be every day, and they get up for work anyway. They do what they do because they represent the best in humanity, even if they bear a heavy cost.

Seeing these tragic circumstances unfold over and over again leaves a person feeling numb and unable to empathize. This numbness makes them withdraw from their family, friends, and loved ones. These symptoms may also lead to drug abuse or alcoholism, which are some of the worst dangers of compassion fatigue.

Signs of Being Affected by Trauma

Police officers can sometimes see the worst of human nature when they do their jobs and respond to emergency calls. The officers in blue are most often called only when someone is acting badly. It is no wonder that compassion fatigue is so often an overwhelming influence in the bureaus of law enforcement.

Officers may not know all of the signs of compassion fatigue until it is too late. However, being able to identify the warning signs of empathetic burnout is crucial for successful treatment outcomes. Here are a few of the warning signs:

  • Exhaustion
  • Negative attitudes toward one’s work
  • Feelings of failure
  • Helplessness
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Panic attacks

Empathetic Burnout and the Challenges Officers Face

Watching television, one might think that the job of a police officer is mostly spent riding in a car while conversing with others. However, although squad car patrols are a part of police work, officers have a variety of other duties during their average day of assignments. Most police work involves responding to incidents or putting themselves into situations in which they or others may come to harm.

Making the conscious choice to put the lives of others before one’s own every day is a psychologically intense decision. Most people, when faced with that kind of scenario, might not make the same choice police officers do. It is no wonder so many officers in blue find themselves facing the empathetic burnout that accompanies these decisions.

Compassion Fatigue and You: A Way Back Through Self-Care

Compassion fatigue does not just affect the ability of the sufferer to deal with the world around them. While withdrawal from social situations may be a symptom of compassion fatigue, it can be accompanied by physical responses as well. Some of these include:

  • Gastrointestinal stress
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Exaggerated startle responses
  • Changes in sleep patterns

Empathetic burnout may also result in cognitive symptoms, which are changes in the ways a person views and processes things. This is because the brain is trying to cope with stresses it does not know how to deal with. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Difficulty remembering things
  • Lack of clarity in thinking
  • Confusion
  • Increased worries about things
  • Trouble making decisions

Empathetic burnout happens when one experiences trauma that their mind has difficulty coping with. One of the best ways to face this trauma is with compassionate care, like the services at First Steps Recovery. When compassion fatigue happens, trauma-informed therapy may be the solution.

Compassion Fatigue Self-Care: Tips for Taking Care of Yourself

A first responder may not always know what kind of a situation they are walking into, adding to their stress. Even though they may not always know what life will throw at them, there are some ways they can prepare. Here are a few practical tips on what a first responder can do to prepare for stressful situations:

  • Learn all available information about the situation before arriving. It may not be much, but every little detail helps.
  • Have a plan with family members and loved ones on how to contact you. Make sure your emergency information is listed with your workplace.
  • Try to limit time working alone. Instead, work in teams.
  • Talk to the people around you, especially if you are feeling unwell or see signs of burnout.

How Getting Back to Nature Can Combat Compassion Fatigue

One of the newest frontiers in combating compassion fatigue involves immersing one’s self in nature. Wilderness and nature therapies have shown themselves to be highly effective in the treatment of empathetic burnout. Spending time outdoors has many positive benefits, both physical and psychological. This simple act of reentering nature improves mood and overall health.

The wilderness therapy program at First Steps Recovery harnesses the healing power of nature in the Clovis area. First Steps Recovery recognizes the restorative powers that getting outdoors and reveling in the natural world can have for the mind and body. In nature, a person can realize that while they may encounter evil in the world, they can still find beauty and peace.

If you are a first responder, you likely face unthinkably traumatic circumstances every day. When you see such terrible tragedies, you may begin to feel the mental toll. When the psychological trauma you endure becomes too much, you may start to experience compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue occurs when you experience a great deal of trauma. One symptom is that you may retreat inwardly, isolating yourself from friends and family. You may also feel exhausted and even experience physiological symptoms of illness such as gastrointestinal distress. At First Steps Recovery, we are here to help you get the care you need as a first responder when you experience empathetic burnout. Call us today at (844) 489-0836 to learn more. 

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