Empathy In Health Professionals

Empathy in empathy among health care professionals

Sometimes healthcare professionals fail to improve the patients they treat. This forms a form of traumatic stress disorder in them: empathy.

Empathy depletion is a condition that results from the care of patients and their understanding.  Evidence of physical, psychological, social, and mental suffering for patients exhausts healthcare professionals. Over time, they may even experience indirect pain from their patients.

Empathy as a trigger for stress

When a person seeks dialysis almost every day of the week,  a bond almost inevitably forms between the health care professional and the patient. The mere daily meeting and exchange of observations and hope for healing creates a friendly trust between the patient and the caregiver.

Putting yourself in another’s shoes is important; healthcare professionals should understand and connect with the needs of their patients. However, empathy is like a double-edged sword and can act as a trigger for a certain kind of stress. This is precisely the case with this empathy for empathy.

Empathy increases the quality of care, but at the same time it increases the professional’s vulnerability to come to an end. In short, the more empathetic the caregiver feels, the greater the risk of empathy depression.

depressed woman

Mechanisms of the brain of compassion

Charles Figley coined the term  empathy exhaustion  in 1995. He is the director of the Tulane University Institute of Traumatology in New Orleans and has observed health care professionals who have worked with traumatized people and who have experienced the indirect effects of patient trauma.

Although the origin of this term is relatively new, the brain mechanisms that explain this term have been present for a long time. These such mechanisms have to do with empathy and imitative behavior. In short, the almond nucleus, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the mirror cells are responsible for when we feel the same thing the other person is feeling.

In addition, if  there is deep pain and immense suffering, the capacity for a person’s compassion increases. Then the lack of compassion becomes even more apparent.

Symptoms of empathic intoxication

Empathy exhaustion is the result of an accumulating process. As we can see, it develops from an emotional distress that prolongs as the strong connection to the patient grows. So what are its signs and symptoms?

  • Cognitive:  memory problems, lack of concentration, repetitive negative thoughts, flashbacks.
  • Emotional:  strong feelings of fear, sadness, anger, general despair, loss of joy or happiness.
  • Physical:  gastrointestinal discomfort, dizziness, headache, high blood pressure, pain, muscle stiffness, chronic fatigue, difficulty falling asleep.

Finally, symptoms that may occur in the workplace: low motivation, feelings of incapacity, awareness of poor vocational training, and isolation from co-workers.

Therapist and patient

Relationship to traumatic stress disorder

You may have noticed that empathy exhaustion looks similar to a traumatic stress disorder. Let’s look at what a traumatic stress disorder consists of. It is caused by some really stressful and traumatic event, one that occurs as a threat of extreme physical damage to the subject. The body has a stress response to adapt to the environment. This can happen at any age and appear immediately after the event.

On the other hand,  empathy fatigue appears suddenly and clearly. In addition, stress is caused by many different factors, not just one. In other words, the constant emotional involvement of health care professionals and the therapeutic relationship with their patients.

Three groups of common symptoms

Empathy depression and PTSD have common symptoms. These are:

  • Re-experiencing the situation. If the conflict is not resolved, the caregiver or professional may relive or remember the traumatic experiences in the form of exposure or flashbacks. For healthcare professionals, this symptom is particularly troublesome. Too much work does not cause this stress, but their emotional relationship with the patient.
  • Avoidance and mental boredom. Here, a person tries to avoid thoughts, feelings, people, places, tasks, and situations that might remind him or her of a traumatic situation. In addition, he may try to get rid of things that have to do with the traumatic matter and he will stop engaging in activities that he used to enjoy. A person suffering from empathic intoxication, in addition to suffering from PTSD, experiences discomfort, irritability, and confusion. He takes distance from his patients as well as other people both mentally and physically, and this can damage his social life.
  • Hyperactivity or acceleration. Acceleration is the level of psychological activation. In this case, their state of excitement and readiness is constant; they react in extreme ways to almost everything.
empathy for health professionals

How to deal with empathy depression?

Now that we know what empathy exhaustion is, we can see the importance of good emotional control in caring for patients. Here are some suggestions on how to deal with this situation:

  • Give yourself time to gain new perspectives and be able to break away. 
  • Recognize what strengths and resources we have available for situations that involve human pain and suffering.
  • Eat well  and sleep well. 
  • Perform relaxation exercises and exercise.
  • Share your thoughts and feelings with your colleagues.

As you can see, the side effects of highly emotional and painful situations are real, even in professionals who are trained to handle them properly. Taking care of ourselves is a priority we must not forget. In fact, it is essential if we want to give our patients the best possible care.

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