Compassion Fatigue & Secondary Trauma: The Flag at Half Staff
The tradition of flying the American flag at half staff has been a symbol of major events and national tragedies. We have few social mechanisms for corporate grief or paying homage to fallen heroes, and this tradition has historically unified our national conscience around shared catastrophes. It has allowed us a sense of national mourning, as we process and remember the event. I recall several of these from my life: The assignation of President Kennedy, Challenger, and 911.
Recent years have seen a number of disheartening national events and tragedies. I’ve had the experience of seeing the flag at half staff without knowing what event it represented. The first occasions I had this experience left me wondering, “What happened?” I later found myself in a position of not knowing, and if the truth be told not wanting to know. I’ve even had the impression that the flag flies at half staff, as much or more than at full staff. There have been so many shootings, bombings, and mass murders. It seem like every week, if not every day, something terrible has happened.
What is Compassion Fatigue and Secondary Trauma?
Counselors monitor themselves and others for things like secondary trauma. This is the trauma that occurs by the telling and retelling of an event, rather than the trauma that comes from witnessing the event directly. Our empathy gets triggered, and after repeated exposure our hearts can get tired of feeling compassion. We term this phenomena “compassion fatigue.” Untreated or unprocessed compassion fatigue can lead to burn out. Common symptoms of secondary trauma can move us toward a sense of self-protection, isolation, and cynicism. Often, like seeing a car accident on the freeway, we don’t want to look, but we can seem to help but stare. After awhile we can take a kind of ignorance and apathy posture of “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Ultimately, empathy fatigue and secondary trauma can leave us cold, aloof, and jaded. It is compounded by the sense that we can’t influence or control what is happening in our lives and world.
How to Deal with Compassion Fatigue
It can hurt to care. However, the solution is not found in shutting down. We can take postures of avoidance and not caring to a point of becoming less human. The alternative is to process the hurt and remain accessible to the pain of caring. We can walk through the kind of pain that comes with compassion and remain alive and vibrant inside. We can process grief and mourning in a violent world that sometimes doesn’t make sense.
Dealing with some degree of secondary trauma is a national issue that we all face to some extent in a world of violence, tragedy, and 24 hour news coverage. We really can’t avoid exposure. The next time you see the flag and half staff, and don’t want to know what happened, it is an opportunity to acknowledge the possibility of your susceptibility to some mild secondary trauma. You can make a choice to address and work through the symptoms of compassion fatigue, or you can avoid and hide. Unfortunately, we continue to carry the pain as suppressed or hidden hurt. This kind of pain tends to compound, and later when the debt has to be paid it will be paid with interest. Find a trusted friend that you can talk with about your reactions and feelings. Most people do not need the services of a professional counselor, but you may need to process the feelings that can come from secondary trauma with caring others. We can help each other process heartbreak and grief to remain fully alive and kindhearted. The effects of not wanting to care anymore may end up being worse that walking through the pain of compassion.
Written by Dr. Dale Piper. Dr. Piper is on the counseling faculty at Argosy University, Denver, training counselors and counselor educators.