This was supposed to be a post about positive psychology and learned optimism. I normally mull over my posts all week and write them on Fridays but on Thursday night, I went to a lecture on burnout aimed at new medical students and I was uncomfortable with some of what I heard so I was forced to use my writing time for that instead. (forced by no one but myself, but you know how sometimes you feel strongly about things and so you can’t focus on anything else? That kind of forced. Compelled, I guess, is more accurate.)

Although I enjoy public speaking, writing and blogging on my own terms, I am not very comfortable in the limelight of op-ed. Some people are incredibly good at it. You know: the witty yet caustic artfully crafted letters to the editor, the inflamed yet articulate caller on the radio phone-in show. Neither of those are within my comfort zone (or talent zone). In fact, my last brush with op-ed fame was about 6 years ago. It was a slow news week in the middle of July and a local print journalist became interested in my opinions related to playground safety (a long, boring story). The day after my piece was published, my friend tried to buy all the newspapers in our neighbourhood so I wouldn’t read the incendiary letters to the editor mocking me and the position I had taken on this issue…Not a big deal, but not very comfortable either.

When it comes to public debate, I am more of a muller – when I experience something that troubles or upsets me, it often happens to me in slow motion, and I almost always need time to reflect and chew my ideas over before making a point or jumping into an argument. That does not make me a very strong debater, sadly, (although I am learning over time at the feet of a master of debate, my partner, who win arguments even on topics he knows nothing about! It’s sometimes enraging but also kind of sexy).

But here goes nothing. My op-ed piece.

Dr Patch Adams: A muddled message about burnout

On Thursday night I attended (along with hundreds of young medical students) Dr Patch Adams’ presentation “The Joy of Caring” which was held at the Biosciences complex on Queen’s Campus, organised by the Aesculapian Medical Undergraduate Society. We were invited to hear “an inspirational talk including the exploration of burnout prevention for caregivers, and the power of care, not only in the patient’s life, but also in the caregiver’s life.”

As a compassion fatigue specialist and someone who devotes nearly all of my time to providing education on burnout to health care professionals, I was very interested to hear Dr Adams’ thoughts on this topic.

I was moved and rather awed by Dr Adams’ total devotion to his life’s goal (which is to offer free medical care to all), and the love and acceptance that he conveys towards his patients across the globe, particularly the most neglected members of society.

However, as I heard Dr Adams speak, I grew increasingly uneasy about one aspect of his message.

Throughout his talk, Dr Adams described his routine of working from 7am to 3am daily and having rarely, if ever, taken a day off work in his many years as a physician and therapeutic clown. He also spoke of a twelve year period where he and other physicians lived with their children and spouses in a six bedroom house which they ran as a free hospital, co-habiting with “5 and sometimes 50 patients at one time, sharing bathrooms, living rooms and bedrooms. Having no privacy whatsoever.” Although he was not advocating that we all do the same, I wondered how his lifestyle was coming across to medical students around me – I wondered whether this was seen by some of them as something to aspire to, a gold standard of self-sacrifice – the sign of a truly dedicated doctor.

Then, I was startled by Dr Adams’ main message which was that, in his opinion, “There is no such thing as physician burnout when you offer [the kind of medical care he offers]. Burnout is not possible when you care.” I do agree with Dr Adams that it is often the system that burns us out rather than the patients themselves: the increasing volume of work, insufficient staffing, inadequate referral resources, etc.

But to state that “burnout does not occur when you care” is simply not true.

Based on very strong research (from 1995 onwards, see Figley, Stamm, Saakvitne and many others) the medical and other health care professions are recognising that there are serious problems with burnout that are intrinsic to helping others. It is in fact well established that there are serious consequences to overwork both to patients and physicians. We now know that working with patients can lead to the serious effects of compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma and burnout. Burnout is a term that has been widely used to describe the physical and emotional exhaustion that workers can experience when they have low job satisfaction and feel powerless and overwhelmed at work. Compassion Fatigue refers to the profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate due to the pace, volume or nature of the patient work they do. Vicarious Trauma has been used to describe the profound shift that workers experience in their world view when they work with patients who have experienced trauma. Helpers notice that their fundamental beliefs about the world are altered and possibly damaged by being repeatedly exposed to traumatic material. Vicarious Trauma occurs when the stories we hear from our patients transfer onto us in a way where we are secondarily traumatized and have difficulty ridding ourselves of the images and experiences they have shared with us. These problems can degenerate into clinical depression, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders and lead to alcoholism, suicidality and serious clinical errors, to name a few.

The good news is that there are simple and effective strategies that can protect us and help to mitigate these effects. We can provide care without suffering, and the answer is certainly not to deny or blame ourselves for experiencing burnout.

My concern is that Dr Adams’ take home message to medical students Thursday night was that if you do not devote every waking hour of your life to patient care, you are a failure and possibly also a shallow, selfish, materialistic human being. Dr Adams may be thriving with his own pace of life and is clearly accomplishing wonderful things in the world. But I believe that for the rest of us mere mortals the best way to provide care to others is to first and foremost start within ourselves: Dr Charles Figley, the highly respected founding father of compassion fatigue says it best: “First, do no harm to yourself in the line of duty when helping/treating others. Second, attend to your physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs as a way of ensuring high quality services to those who look to you for support as a human being. ” (Green Cross Academy of Traumatology, Standards of Self Care Guidelines.)

This isn’t a zero sum game: you do not take away from others by caring for yourself – it is, in fact, quite the opposite. We are far more effective caregivers if we have our own emotional house in order.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: an Important Tool in Mitigating Compassion Fatigue in Helpers

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a holistic mind/body approach developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachussets Medical Center in 1979. MBSR is “[…] based on the central concept of mindfulness, defined as being fully present to one’s experience without judgment or resistance”. (Cohen-Katz et al, 2005) The MBSR program recommends using meditation, yoga, relaxation training as well as strategies to incorporate these practices into every day life.

Research on the effectiveness of MBSR is highly conclusive: over 25 year of studies clearly demonstrate that MBSR is helpful in reducing emotional distress and managing severe physical pain. In fact, MBSR has been used successfully with patients suffering from chronic pain, depression, sleep disorders, cancer-related pain and high blood pressure. (Cohen-Katz et al, 2005) Based at Toronto’s CAMH, Zindel Segal has developed a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program for treating depression that has shown to be highly effective.

MBSR and Compassion Fatigue

Researchers recently turned their attention to the interaction between MBSR and compassion fatigue (CF), to see whether MBSR would help reduce CF symptoms among helpers. One study of clinical nurses found that MBSR helped significantly reduce symptoms of CF, as well as helping the subjects be calmer and more grounded during their rounds and interactions with patients and colleagues. (Cohen-Katz et al, 2005) Another study investigated the effects of teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction to graduate students in counseling psychology. The study found that participants in the MBSR program “reported significant declines in stress, negative affect, rumination, state and trait anxiety, and significant increases in positive affect and self-compassion.” (Shapiro, 2007)

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Interesting speech on Compassion Fatigue

I came across this speech on the blogosphere. It was written by the Jeremy Adam Smith, senior editor of the Magazine Great Good, an online publication whose mission is described as follows on their site: “Greater Good highlights ground breaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism. It fuses this science with inspiring stories of compassion in action, providing a bridge between social scientists and parents, educators, community leaders, and policy makers.”

This speech was given as a talk to nurses of UC Berkeley Health Services on surviving compassion fatigue.

Low impact disclosure: Just a warning before you read it: the first portion of the speech describes a brief but violent attack (the author was mugged which is the beginning of the story) and some of you may not want to read it for that reason.

Try this at home: The Five Key Elements of a Self Care Retreat

(Photo: Late June in Umea, Sweden)

I have just finished a busy past two weeks. I offered a full day training in Toronto, a shorter presentation at a PTSD conference and at a conference for community social services and finally the two day Compassion Fatigue Train the Trainer. I also had the opportunity to hear Babette Rothschild present grounding techniques from her very useful book “Help for the Helper”. I have also been processing orders for the new Compassion Fatigue Workbook which I am very happy to now have available for helpers who are looking for more resources to work through CF strategies on their own or as a team.

Now, thankfully, there is a bit of time to process and digest it all, (and weed the garden a bit.)

I had a widely varied group of participants at the train the trainer workshop: veterinarians, managers from homeless and women’s shelters, hospital social workers, addictions counsellors, to name a few. In our discussions, we discovered that the challenges we face are far more similar than they are different – whether you are working with pet owners or with humanoid patients, there is a strong human factor in the work: people are grieving, people are angry (often at us, for a flawed system, for a lack of resources, maybe for errors we make or errors they perceive we made). Dealing with loss, grief and anger takes its toll on us, and so does having to turn people away when we simply do not have the resources to help them.

Having a two day retreat with a small group of helping professionals is a rare opportunity to talk and reflect (in a very lovely environment – the centre where I hold these workshops is beautiful) and that alone is worth its weight in gold, in giving us all the opportunity to replenish ourselves.

I think that we need to look at small ways to create retreats for ourselves even if we do not have the time or money to go to a train the trainer workshop or an actual retreat. Here are some suggested steps:

A Retreat plan for yourself

1) Get your daytimer and book a day off (two is even better). Make sure that the entire day is free. If you have more financial resources, consider booking yourself into a local B&B and make this retreat an overnight event. You can also buddy up and plan the retreat with a colleague or two, but make sure they are committed to making this a replenishing experience and not talk shop.

2) Plan your day, making sure that you will include three key components: Stress Reduction, Relaxation and Resilience. What does this mean?

Eric Gentry, compassion fatigue scholar and co-developer of the Accelerated Recovery Program (ARP) for helpers with compassion fatigue, wrote a powerful article in 2002 called The Crucible of Transformation. I highly recommend that you read it. To obtain a pdf of the article, simply Google: Gentry crucible of transformation and then download the article from his website: (Make sure you do not download the one from the website Gift from Within as it is incomplete. For some reason, visiting his website directly does not work but googling does.)

In this article, Gentry offers two important principles that are critical to remaining healthy in the face of the challenges of our work:

“These two important principles, which have become the underlying goals for our work in the area of compassion fatigue, are: (1) the development and maintenance of intentionality, through a non-anxious presence, in both personal and professional spheres of life, and (2) the development and maintenance of self-validation, especially self-validated caregiving. We have found, in our own practices and with the caregivers that we have treated, that when these principles are followed not only do negative symptoms diminish, but also quality of life is significantly enhanced and refreshed as new perspectives and horizons begin to open.” (Gentry, 2002)

Let us highlight the two key concepts from that paragraph:

“(1) the development and maintenance of intentionality, through a non-anxious presence, in both personal and professional spheres of life, and

(2) the development and maintenance of self-validation, especially self-validated

What does this mean exactly?

A non-anxious presence refers to the ability of being in the room with the client’s pain and suffering and being able to express empathy and compassion without taking on the other person’s suffering. In both the personal and the professional realm, it is about mindfulness, the ability to notice and control your physical symptoms of stress and anxiety, and your breathing. It is a concept that is explored in depth by Babette Rothschild, author of Help for the Helper: the psychophysiology of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma (2006).

“Self-validated caregiving” refers to self-care that is guilt-free, self-care that is prioritised as a means of remaining healthy in this line of work.

So, reflect on this for yourself:

What stress relief strategies do you enjoy? Examples of stress relief are taking a bath, sleeping well or going for a massage.

What stress reduction strategies work for you? Stress reduction means cutting back on things in our lives that are stressful (switching to part time work, changing jobs, rejigging your caseload, etc.)

What stress resiliency strategies can you use? Resiliency strategies are relaxation methods that we develop and practice regularly, such as meditation, yoga or breathing exercises.

Ok, now let’s return to our Retreat plan:

Step one (a discussed above): Carve out some protected time for yourself, either on your own or with a good friend/colleague.

Step two: Make sure that your day has the five following elements:

1- Plenty of unstructured time to rest, nap, read (something unrelated to work), sit, swing in a hammock, lie on your bed…

2- A physical component: sign up for a fitness class, go swimming, stretch, run, go for a long walk around your neighbourhood or if you need a change of scenery, take public transit or drive to a completely different part of your community. If you can afford it, book a massage for your retreat day.

3- A relaxation component: Consider downloading a relaxation tape from itunes, or purchase a relaxation cd from your local bookstore (I recommend Mark Berber’s Creating Inner Calm, which is available at Chapters/Indigo) and trying out one or two relaxation or deep breathing activities.

4 -A stress resiliency activity: Consider taking a yoga class or trying out a brief meditation tape from itunes.

5-During this day, eat healthy, simple food, try to avoid caffeine and any other stimulants. If not drinking caffeine is a problem for you in terms of withdrawal, try and have just one cup in the morning and redu
ce the rest of your day’s caffeine intake.

What may happen during this day: You may feel wonderful at the end of your mini retreat, or you may find that it was a very dificult day for you. This is important information. First of all, slowing down and letting go of our daily concerns takes time and practice. Secondly, working in this field, and having to live with compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma within us, sometimes stopping and slowing down means that we are letting our guard down. This guardedness is actually something we use as a protection mechanism during our daily working lives. So you may find that your day off is filled with images, thoughts about work or about certain clients etc..

If you find that this is very strong, and difficult to deal wtih, I strongly recommend that you consider seeking the support of a trained counsellor or psychotherapist who understands compassion fatigue.

You may also find that you need to practice being in a retreat mode and that it takes a few times to get it right. I recall the first time I ever tried mindfulness meditation was at an all day mindfulness retreat (no half measures for this gal…) and it was a very uncomfortable day for me. I felt twitchy, bored, restless and eager for the day to end. As we were walking out of the retreat day, my colleague who had come with me looked totally relaxed and blissed out. I said “so, how was it for you?” She replied “oh, wonderful, refreshing, so relaxing. I feel fabulous.” I was lucky enough to experience the replenishing qualities of mindfulness meditation a few years later, but I learned that meditation takes practice and a lot of kindness towards ourselves: we can’t necessarily speed our way through it.

Your retreat will be whatever it is – easy, hard, challenging, replenishing – set the bar low. The main step is to actually carve out time away from work and other family and life commitments. From there on, it’s all gravy.

Let me know how it goes.

Chronic Crises: Working with the toenail of the elephant

I just finished co-presenting a three day crisis intervention workshop ( with my colleague Dr Mike Condra. This is a workshop we offer every October in Kingston and we meet dozens of crisis intervention workers from across the country who come to retool and hone their skills.

During this workshop, I am often asked questions related to working with clients who are chronically in crisis.

Most helpers say that they find clients in chronic crisis to be the most draining clients to work with: their seemingly endless demands, high needs, difficulty self-soothing and sometimes poor problem solving skills. The fact that we will work incredibly hard to set up a referral link for them and then the clients will sometimes sabotage the help they are being offered. The self-destructiveness, the splitting…

I have spent a lot of time pondering this challenge and seeking training on working with high need clients, and have the following suggestions for anyone wishing to continue helping such clients and retaining a respectful, helpful stance while not burning out. Read More

Running on Empty: Compassion Fatigue in Professionals

Originally published in Rehab and Community Care Medicine, Spring 2007.

The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet” (Remen, 1996)

What is compassion fatigue?

Our primary task as helping professionals is first and foremost to meet the physical and/or emotional needs of our clients and patients. This can be an immensely rewarding experience, and the daily contact with patients is what keeps many of us working in this field. It is a Calling, a highly specialized type of work that is unlike any other profession. However, this highly specialised rewarding profession can also look like this: Increasingly stressful work environments, heavy case loads and dwindling resources, cynicism and negativity from co-workers, low job satisfaction and, for some, the risk of being physically assaulted by patients. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE