Howard Center Q&A Highlights Universality of ‘Compassion Fatigue’

Got stress? Stop whatever you’re doing for the next 10 seconds and do this: Sit still. Relax your eyes. Feel yourself in your seat. Notice your legs, your back. Notice your feet in your shoes (or not), touching the floor. Feel the heels of your feet on the floor, then feel the balls of your feet, then the toes. Wiggle your toes. Take a breath. Take another one. 

Congratulations. You’ve just spent a precious 10 or 15 seconds toward your well-being in a time of unprecedented stress and uncertainty. Making it a practice will help you cope and build your resilience for whatever comes your way. 

In a recent livestream Q&A by the Howard Center, Beth Goss used this “mindfulness-now” micro-meditation to remind people that self-care need not be complicated. Goss, a licensed mental health counselor and director of client care and coordination at Howard, said it’s just one way we can refocus our attention at any moment on the here and now. By doing so, we’re building resilience, bit by little bit, to weather the storm called Covid.

Compassion Fatigue for All?

The meditation was part of “Compassion Fatigue for the Whole Community,” one of Howard Center’s World Mental Health Day events. In it, Goss spoke about the spillover of compassion fatigue outside of its usual purview in the “helping professions” and into our communities at large.

In more normal times, compassion fatigue is generally associated with first responders, healthcare workers, and others who witness suffering daily in their jobs. It describes the more difficult aspects of working in a helping profession, which otherwise can be enormously gratifying. These days, compassion fatigue in the caring fields is rampant, exacerbated by widespread workforce shortages. That itself is a grave concern, both for individuals experiencing it and for public health, because these workers are vital to our nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Still, there’s a more insidious phenomenon going on. Deep into the second year of Covid, amidst a surge in cases across Vermont, compassion fatigue — or some form of it – seems to be seeping beyond the porous borders of the caring professions and into the fabric of our communities. It is showing up in myriad ways in the every-day lives of ordinary people. And it’s feeding a mental health emergency across generations – especially youth – whose scope is only beginning to be appreciated.

In the livestream, Howard Center’s Goss described how applying the same principles counselors use to address compassion fatigue in helpers can be of value to anyone feeling the overwhelm of pandemic stress.

When Stress Becomes a Health Concern

Goss put up a crowded slide listing dozens of possible symptoms of anxiety or depression. (See below.) While having one or two of these symptoms does not equal a diagnosis of anxiety or depression, she said “it’s good to be aware of as we’re thinking about how we’re doing.”

  • Excessive worry
  • Feeling restless or on edge
  • Muscle tension
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Excessive guilt
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Reckless behavior
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep changes
  • Appetite changes
  • Anger and irritability
  • Physical pain
  • Persistent sadness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal ideation

If these signs show up, especially if they are new or if you are having “trouble snapping back into baseline” after experiencing them, pay attention, Goss warned. If they are interfering with your daily functioning, pay attention. The same goes if you are no longer gaining joy from things you used to enjoy, or if you’ve noticed you’re using alcohol or other substances more frequently. These are all red flags that should not be ignored. Thoughts of suicide or self-harm are “reach-out moments,” Goss said. Talk to someone you trust or a trained counselor. (Scroll down for urgent help lines.)

Taking Care of You: Self-Care for High-Stress Times

Goss outlined a roadmap for self-care in these challenging times, positioning it more as a necessity than a privilege. She outlined eight guidelines for taking care of yourself.

Be kind to yourself. “We’ve never done this before,” Goss said. Practice self-compassion.

Get into a groove. Maintain a routine as best you can. “When we follow our routines, we do better,” Goss said.

Have some fun. Take time out to delve into activities that you enjoy.

Go natural. Get out in nature as much as possible. Nature soothes our nerves and lowers our stress levels. 

Take a moment from your day, once an hour even, to just open the door to the outside and breathe. Breathe fresh air.

Move. Find ways to work in physical activity. Just taking a walk does wonders for mental health.

Notice self-medicating. Be aware of how and how much you’re using substances. Are you using them as stress relievers? Has your use increased? 

Relax. Find a relaxation or meditation practice that works for you. Remember that mindfulness doesn’t have to be time-consuming. It can be applied to every-day actions, and you can take a mindfulness break anytime. Use the one at the beginning of this article as a guide.

Help others. Volunteering your time in a formal way or just offering a helping hand to a neighbor or friend can boost our own mental wellness. 

Where Do You Put Your Stress?

“I always ask people: where do you put your stress and worry?” Goss said. She shared her own strategy for dealing with stressors that can arise unexpectedly during the day and set you off balance — or wake you up in the middle of the night and threaten your precious sleep. She imagines putting the worries into a lockbox that gets ceremoniously locked and stored away safely until the time is right to unpack them.  

“Put it away and shut the drawer in your mind, to separate yourself from that worry.”

~ Beth Goss, LCMHC, Howard Center

Learn More and Find Resources

Watch the livestream with Beth Goss of Howard Center, Compassion Fatigue for the Whole Community.

Find Self-Care Tips and Resources at COVIDSupportVT.org.

Get the basics on stress – what causes it, what it looks like, and what to do about it. 

Download our Daily Stress Management Plan and print it out at home as a guide to staying on track with your self-care and wellness.

Join one of our daily workshops and support groups on a range of self-care and wellness topics. All are offered virtually (Zoom link provided upon registration) and are free and open to all. Find them here

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Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (option #2) or 866-652-4636 (option #2) for free, confidential, one-on-one counseling. Our Support Counselors are available Monday – Friday. 

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at www.COVIDSupportVT.org. Follow COVID Support VT on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And to stay up-to-date, sign up for our newsletter and blog.

Learn about upcoming Wellness Workshops from COVID Support VT, and Town Halls we’re hosting in partnership with community organizations.

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the COVIDSupportVT.org website, plus Multilingual Resources & downloadable materials in 10 languages common to Vermont’s New American immigrant and refugee communities. 

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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