Managing compassion fatigue with yoga: Take care of yourself!

By Smitha Mallaiah

I work in a cancer hospital, supporting both patients with life-threatening illnesses and their caregivers with therapeutic yoga practices. I’ve seen lots of people—including healthcare professionals—go through extremely rough times.

The symptoms and side-effects related to cancer treatment can be significant, and doctors, nurses, and other front-line healthcare providers are expected to provide empathic care for patients with varied physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. In advanced illness, patients may suffer from pain, fatigue, family distress, and more—all of which clinicians must help them manage. Such a demanding environment provides personal and professional growth opportunities, but these come with the emotional cost of caring for others.

As reported by Sinclair et al., compassion means “to suffer with, a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.” Providers in environments like the cancer center where I work are exposed to compassion fatigue. Aligned with “secondary traumatic stress,” in extreme cases compassion fatigue can lead people to abandon their work with patients. Although attempts to measure compassion fatigue in nurses and doctors are increasing, everyone who works closely with others going through traumatic experiences is at risk—especially when we ignore our own needs.

As Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project founder Patricia Smith puts it, “Accepting the presence of compassion fatigue in your life only serves to validate the fact that you are a deeply caring individual.” Regular self-care should be the top priority for all of us so we can stay connected to our purpose and successfully continue our work—our dharma, as we might say in yoga.

What yoga practices can help? 

The answer to how yoga can help address compassion fatigue in professionals and the public alike lies not in specific practices, but in the HOW of yoga. If you are even somewhat familiar with yoga practices, you know that we employ poses, breathing, meditation, and many other techniques, but what is it about these practices that helps? Sage Patanjali lays out the path of yoga in the Yoga Sutras: “Heyam dukham anagatam,” or, “The suffering that is to come can be avoided.”

The root cause of suffering needs to be eliminated. But how? Patanjali says that yogic techniques can help get us there: “Abhyasa-vairagya tan-nirodhah”—through practice and centeredness, oneness, or freedom from suffering, can be attained. By attending to experience through the various practices of yoga, we come to know ourselves more deeply, and we recognize that we and the patient are one and the same.

As the Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Smitha Mallaia, MSc, C-IAYT, has practiced yoga therapy for more than 15 years and is a senior mind-body interventionist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She is also the program director at the SVYASA-USA yoga school, which mentors yoga therapists and teachers.