This post is not medical advice or a substitute for professional evaluation and treatment. If you or someone you know are experiencing a mental health crisis, call 9-8-8 or 800-273-TALK.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have worked as a therapist at a community mental health center with individuals who face challenges such as severe mental illness, post-traumatic stress, addiction, and homelessness. Despite my passion for this work, by autumn 2021 it had detrimental effects on my well-being. I experienced a work hazard known to caregivers as “compassion fatigue.” Some of the hallmarks of compassion fatigue include cynicism, anxiety, exhaustion, irritability, a lack of creativity, and an inability to listen.
Recognizing that it would be impossible for me to work as a therapist or enjoy life unless something changed, I took action. First, I visited a mental health professional to support my own mental health. Second, I signed up for a class with the Tai Chi Foundation.
One class turned into a three-part series on the Yang Short Form extending into summer 2022. The teachers for the course were Margaret Olmsted, Nick Smith, and Michael Barnhart. I want to extend my gratitude to all three of them. They worked terrifically together, making class both challenging and fun. The quality of instruction (from my limited experience) was extremely high. Adapting to COVID-19, they made the most of Zoom, providing clear guidance, individualized feedback, and recordings of class that we could review during the week.
Our instructors conveyed the importance of making tai chi part of one’s daily life, advising us to do a round when we wake up, before we go to bed, and anytime we feel like it in between. I have followed their advice, doing two rounds a day nearly every morning and night. This means that I have been practicing tai chi regularly for over one year now. Correlated with this fact, I am happy to report that I have significantly less stress in my life and no compassion fatigue.
What changed? Family and friends have noticed that compared to a year ago I worry less, am more relaxed, and have more energy. Colleagues have noticed that I am more cheerful and enthusiastic at work. A supervisor observed that I have improved my ability to be present with clients as they have a crisis and then let go, instead of carrying the distress with me. Although none of my clients have stated it directly, I’d like to think that they have noticed that I am more able to stay present in session.
How did things change? Well first, I must say that it is nearly impossible to practice self-care without stable living conditions, a support system, and a workplace whose organizational culture allows for it. The visit to the mental health professional also helped. That all being said, I believe tai chi has been instrumental to me in overcoming compassion fatigue. Here’s how:
First, I needed a non-verbal, embodied way to process emotions. As a therapist, I am highly skilled at talking about emotions. However, talking about things is not always curative! In fact, I can “intellectualize,” or discuss my emotions in a way that sounds rational without necessarily experiencing them. Tai chi allows me to spontaneously feel emotions and let them go. I recall an early class with Margaret where I started crying. It didn’t make sense, but it felt good, and I went with it. Nowadays, while doing tai chi I can access a wide range of emotions that I experienced during the day (happiness, sadness, anger, pride) and then let them go rather than carry them into the next day.
Second, tai chi provides me a reliable way of activating my parasympathetic nervous system. Allow me to explain. The sympathetic nervous system is the body’s ability to have a stress response, also known as “fight or flight.” The default setting for most therapists in a community mental health setting is fight or flight. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system is the body’s ability to recuperate, also known as “rest and digest.” By doing tai chi regularly, I ensure that my nervous system has time in hibernation mode, balancing with, and recovering from the stress of the day.
Third, tai chi encourages me to become attuned to my internal experience, and to orient myself from there. Like a lot of beginners, when I started tai chi, I was obsessed with getting every detail right, from the angle of my foot to the direction of my fingertips. While I still want to improve my knowledge of the technical details, I’ve increasingly prioritized (per Margaret’s recommendation) the actual sensations I have while moving through the form.
Interestingly, this is parallel to the life of a therapist. Early on we focus on technique, trying to say “the right thing” to clients. With more experience we can relax, listen to our gut, and respond spontaneously to the situation at hand. Furthermore, being attuned to my internal experience as a starting point has made me much better at saying no when I’m stretched thin and asked to take on another commitment.
In summary, tai chi has played a key part in this therapist’s overcoming of his compassion fatigue. I am not only more useful to the fellow human beings entrusted to my care, but I am also enjoying my work and life in general more. With another year of consistent practice, I may become as relaxed as my pet cat seems to be. Okay, that’s impossible. But at the least, I will be a part of an amazing community dedicated to tai chi and its benefits.
Dr. Benjamin Wegner lives in Los Angeles by way of Chicago. He works as a psychotherapist and adjunct professor, teaching courses such as Humanistic-Existential Psychology and Trauma & Crisis Intervention. Adjacent to tai chi, Benjamin enjoys reading philosophy (especially Chaung Tzu), drinking tea (especially Pu Erh), and hiking (especially with his fiancé). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photograph by Finn
 For more information on compassion fatigue, burnout, and how to overcome them, see Trauma Stewardship: an Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk, published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers in 2009
 To learn more about how the body stores emotions and traumatic experiences, see The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, published in 2015 by Penguin Publishing Group