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'Compassion fatigue' is a risk to those who work helping others

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Registered nurse Chrissie Burkhiser cleans an emergency room suite after treating a COVID-19 patient at Scotland County Hospital Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Memphis, Mo. The tiny hospital in rural northeast Missouri is seeing an alarming increase in coronavirus cases. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Jeff Roberson
Registered nurse Chrissie Burkhiser cleans an emergency room suite after treating a COVID-19 patient at Scotland County Hospital Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Memphis, Missouri.

Overexposure to physical and mental stress that can result in feeling detached and hopeless is risk of of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to widespread absences among health care workers as they're forced to quarantine and isolate when they themselves contract the disease.

But there's another reason they're increasingly absent from work: compassion fatigue.

Matt Cascio, a certified compassion fatigue coach and registered nurse, explains: "Imagine today all the nurses that have seen all these traumatic events going on and all these people passing away in front of them."

Cascio's own experience with compassion fatigue caused him to leave the hospital system where he worked in 2018.

Compassion fatigue is not new, the phrase having been coined in the early 1990s, according to Cascio. And it doesn't apply only to those in a medical environment. Police, firefighters and even veterinarians are among those affected.

Left untreated, the condition can cause physical symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization.

And if left unaddressed, Cascio warns, it can cause anxiety, fear, relationship problems, drug and alcohol abuse, and self-isolation.

Physical symptoms include gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure and hormonal imbalances .

Self-care is paramount in preventing and treating compassion fatigue. It's often compared to the flight instruction to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others put on theirs.

Good eating and sleeping habits are a must, Cascio says. He advises doing "things you love, find some passion in your life."

Regardless of what those might be, he emphasizes that recovery "all starts from within."

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