Monday, April 8, 2013

Vacation; Cure for Compassion Fatigue?

I am a recent convert to vacations as a method to combat ‘the cost of caring.’ 

There is a cumulative toll when we, professionals or other caregivers, are exposed to the suffering of other human beings. We may come to feel exhausted, helpless and numb.

There are reams of articles and literature on this subject.  We call it Compassion Fatigue, Vicarious Trauma or Secondary Trauma. I have addressed audiences on this topic over the years. Though I am a believer in self-care, I have always put more stock in community care. I have always noted that walking beside compassion fatigue is compassion satisfaction.

I believe the cost of turning away from others’ suffering is greater than the cost of caring. Strategies that sustain our spirit are essential: mindfulness, surrounding ourselves with gentleness, embracing our creativity, the use of consultation, making meaning in the company of others, and social activism all seem quite promising to sustain our resilience in the face if adversities.  

I have been baffled when surveys of counselors, and other providers of care, list vacations as one of the top antidotes for Compassion Fatigue.

Aren’t vacations a form of denial or avoidance? Aren’t vacations reserved for the privileged, those who would never choose to be social workers?

Truthfully I dreaded vacations.

When the noise stops and my to do lists vanish I felt more panic than the relief predicted by the self-care books. Waiting at the threshold of my well-chosen vacation spot are swirling feelings that my daily busyness allows me to avoid.

There are also ghosts that breathe down my neck or pull at my skirt insisting that I pay attention to them. They are your everyday ghosts that carry the commonplace personal and interpersonal issues I like to put on the back burner, losses that I hoped time alone would resolve. What good, I wonder,  is a vacation if I have to spend it being haunted and bombarded with unwanted feelings?

Maturity, experience and humility are great teachers. I now know that during vacations, no mattered how brief or extended, I must make room for reflection, for feelings of all shapes and sizes. Whatever is haunting me must be welcomed, not avoided.

Now on vacations I write each morning and wait to see what appears on the page that has been waiting for words. This ritual often includes weeping, a few revelations and reconnection with ignored parts of myself.

Last weekend I stayed in a cabin next to Warren Woods State Park, less than a two- hour drive from my home.  My dog Kali, my favorite role model for the practice of enjoying the moment, came too. I walked in the woods. My mind wandered to my mother in hospice care. I cried. Kali chased squirrels, and we walked up hills and discovered a beach. The smell of wet sand, the sound of the waves caressing the shoreline and seagulls squawking as Kali ran behind them put my world back in balance.

I am now a fan of the quiet spaces in addition to the precious connections with friends, colleagues and family who refuse to turn away.

Laurie Kahn


  1. Great article and great reminder. Vacations as such nurture the soul in very deep ways. They allow for transformation and new energy... Thank you!

  2. As I prepare for a conference on the west coast this weekend (which has a little bit of vacation time embedded within it), I am looking forward to the not doing, the just being, and the letting what comes. Thanks for reminding me of this gift. -Jan