The world is full of suffering. Those committed to helping others – including those who help professions such as mental health and medicine, activists, volunteers and the very empathetic – face continuous exposure to a wide range of suffering. Compassion fatigue is a type of indirect trauma this happens when a person is overwhelmed by the trauma and the struggles of others.
At the outset, compassion fatigue can cause a person to be preoccupied with injustice and the desire to repair it. However, as the fatigue of compassion intensifies, it can apathy and burnout. This can undermine a person’s relationships and ties to others. And for those helping professions, the fatigue of compassion can be professionally disastrous.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is like burnout in that it can sap a person’s physical, emotional and spiritual energy. Unlike burnout, however, it only appears in contexts where a person provides significant emotional support or emotional work. In some cases, symptoms of compassion fatigue resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Compassion fatigue is like burnout in that it can sap a person’s physical, emotional and spiritual energy.
Here are other ways in which compassion fatigue differs from burnout:
- Burnout occurs when a person’s environment is stressful, while compassion fatigue occurs when a person’s interactions with other people undermine their emotional reserves.
- People with compassion fatigue can start to avoid situations in which they have to face the suffering of another person but not avoid other work.
- Compassion fatigue can make a person lose empathy for the others.
- People with compassion fatigue may feel cynical, apathetic, or out of touch with others.
- Burnout generally improves when a person takes time away from the source of burnout. Compassion fatigue can persist.
Who gets compassion fatigue?
Anyone who spends a lot of time helping others or thinking about the suffering of others can develop compassion fatigue. Some particularly vulnerable populations include:
- Very empathetic people who tend to serve as “therapists” in their family or among their friends.
- Malfunctioning people families who continually try to support other family members without seeking support for themselves.
- People in the medical and mental health professions, especially providers who work with trauma victims, abusedor the dying.
- People in areas that face systematic injustice. Lawyers working on difficult cases or social justice issues, activists, people who work to prevent child maltreatment and others who work to end systemic issues are at risk. The work does not have to be remunerated. A volunteer rape counselor, for example, could easily develop compassion fatigue.
- Professionals who regularly intervene in traumatic or life-threatening situations. First responders such as firefighters, police and EMS professionals can report indirect trauma or compassion fatigue.
- Caregivers at chronically ill people. An adult child caring for a parent with dementia or another terminal illness may feel tired and exhausted.
Some research suggests that compassion fatigue is more common when someone is given inadequate support for their work. A caregiver for a person with dementia may be more vulnerable to fatigue when other family members refuse to help or constantly criticize their caregiving.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue
Symptoms of compassion fatigue vary from person to person and can change over time. They include:
- Symptoms that resemble PTSD, such as flashbacks, avoidance, disturbing dreams and nightmares.
- An inability to show compassion or empathy. A treating physician may begin to blame their patients for their illnesses, while a social worker may lose interest in helping families in difficulty.
- Anger and bitterness.
- Become socially disconnected.
- Feel misunderstood by others.
- Having less and less limits between work and home.
- Reduced productivity and efficiency.
- Feel trapped.
Compassion fatigue prevention strategies
Compassion fatigue is a common struggle and it is not always preventable. It often occurs suddenly, even after a person has managed stress well for years. However, certain prevention strategies can reduce the risk and help a person better manage the symptoms of compassion fatigue:
- Allow time for self-care, including eating healthy meals, exercising and spending time on enjoyable hobbies.
- Set clear boundaries. No one needs to answer calls 24 hours a day or provide constant care to another person.
- Stay as far away from work or caregiving as possible.
- Spend time with people who support and understand the work you do. A public interest lawyer, for example, can find support and assistance from weekly meetings with lawyers in similar areas.
- Practice mindfulness. Compassion fatigue can cause a person to feel distracted and overwhelmed. Meditation and conscious life strategies can counter these feelings.
- Avoid taking work at home. Do not read disturbing emails or listen to voice messages during downtime. People involved in caregiving or unpaid activism should plan time away from their activities.
- Ask for help. No one person can solve the world’s problems. Caregivers should seek paid care options or seek help from other family members. Caregivers should explore additional resources to help their clients while reducing their exhaustion.
- Reward yourself for difficult tasks. For example, plan an outing with friends after meeting a difficult client.
Compassion fatigue treatment
Compassion fatigue is a response to chronic stress, not a mental health diagnosis. This means that to deal with compassion fatigue, a person must be relieved of stress. It could mean:
- Reduce their workload or see fewer customers.
- Take time away from work.
- Establish clear boundaries between work and personal life.
- Change your approach to work.
In some professions, it may not be possible to reduce stress. For example, an emergency doctor who treats victims of abuse may have little control over their workload, while a death penalty lawyer may be the only person in their area who can handle cases as well. complex. People in these situations may need extensive ongoing support, medication manage anxiety and depression, and regular breaks from work.
Regardless of the cause of compassion fatigue, a therapist can help a person:
- Assess their limits. In some cases, a person develops compassion fatigue because they feel compelled to “save” everyone.
- Create a better work-life balance. Time away from work, meaningful hobbies, exercise, and personal care can all help with compassion fatigue and burnout.
- Relax. Develop relaxation strategies such as meditation and cultivate mindfulness in the moment.
- Identify other resources that could help you. For example, a doctor can significantly relieve his stress by hiring an office assistant or by relying more on his nursing staff.
- Acquire new skills. New strategies for dealing with personal or professional challenges can help a person avoid fatigue of compassion. For example, by learning to listen without giving advice, a parent can offer more support to a troubled child without feeling so exhausted after each conversation.
GoodTherapy can help you find a therapist who specializes in compassion fatigue. Start your search here.
- Tired of compassion. (North Dakota.). The American Institute of Stress. Extract from https://www.stress.org/military/for-practitionersleaders/compassion-fatigue
- Tired of compassion. (2017, August 23). American Bar Association. Extract from https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources/compassion_fatigue
- Gallagher, R. (2013). Tired of compassion. Canadian family doctor, 59(3), 265-268. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3596203
- Pfifferling, J. and Gilley, K. (2000). Overcome the fatigue of compassion. Extract from https://www.aafp.org/fpm/2000/0400/p39.html
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