This is a common side effect of emergency medical work, but can be managed.

People who work in emergency medicine are unique – brave, compassionate, capable of enduring long stretches in a stressful environment while producing a high degree of quality patient care – but this does not mean they are immune to the effects of this trauma.

Secondary traumatic stress, otherwise known as compassion fatigue, can occur when you regularly see or hear about the first-hand trauma experiences of another.  With the global outbreak of coronavirus disease, many healthcare workers are experiencing these stress reactions and symptoms more than ever.

This is natural, says Dr Tanya Boshoff, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Potchefstroom.  “Doctors, nurses, psychologists, paramedics, and other caregivers are usually at high risk of developing signs of compassion fatigue.  At a time like this, when it seems the whole world is under strain, that risk is higher than ever for staff on the front line.”

What does compassion fatigue feel like?  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US warns that secondary traumatic stress comes with symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress, including:

  • Excessively worrying about something bad happening
  • Feeling on guard all the time
  • A racing heartbeat and other physical signs of stress
  • Nightmares or recurrent thoughts about the traumatic situation
  • The feeling that others’ trauma is yours

Dr Boshoff says you may feel emotionally and physically exhausted, but also a sense of emotional withdrawal.  “If you listen empathically to your patients’ trauma, for a significant period of time, the cumulative effect of that second-hand exposure can be just as traumatic as experiencing the trauma yourself.”

Stress is a normal and natural reaction to exposure to trauma.  The challenge is that it can overwhelm even the most hardened soldier.  If you are to overcome compassion fatigue, it needs to be expected and managed accordingly.

Dr Boshoff recommends implementing a daily or weekly routine that incorporates several key elements: healthy living habits, social connection, and a consistent, mindful approach to self-care.  “Keep reminding yourself that you are doing the best you can do in this difficult time.  Exercise regularly as it will help you to blow off steam and remain positive about the future – and start a new regime of meditating and muscle relaxation techniques.”

The CDC agrees.  Keep their first-responder self-care techniques in mind:

  • Work in teams and limit amount of time working alone
  • Write in a journal
  • Talk to family, friends, supervisors, and teammates about your feelings and experiences
  • Practise breathing and relaxation techniques
  • Maintain a healthy diet and get adequate sleep and exercise
  • Know that it is okay to draw boundaries
  • Avoid or limit caffeine and use of alcohol

Responding to disasters such as the COVID-19 outbreak can be rewarding, if you are able to respond in a way that keeps you mentally healthy.  In turn, this will empower you to provide the urgent but compassionate care your patients need.