What Is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is a condition that impacts many professions and caregivers in trauma-informed organizations. Medical or healing professions, first responders, law enforcement, therapists, nurses, and other service providers are the most commonly affected by compassion fatigue and empathic distress. Often confused with burnout, compassion fatigue includes emotional, cognitive, physical, behavioral, religious and spiritual reactions due to helping clients, patients or victims, typically through stressful or traumatic events. Those who deal with other people’s trauma, grief or life crisis every day may experience compassion fatigue.
Professionals who deal with people suffering from stress or trauma on a regular basis can experience fatigue as they empathize with those they are helping. It’s a hazard of the job and can manifest as extreme tiredness, exhaustion, and the loss of empathy for patients. Two aspects of compassion fatigue are burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Burnout occurs from having too much work, too many responsibilities, and not enough resources. Secondary traumatic stress occurs from experiencing the same stress as the person who experienced the primary trauma.
Warning signs to watch for when working in trauma-informed care
Compassion fatigue is a gradual process that takes time to manifest. It slowly drains compassion, empathy, and emotional reserves until there is nothing left to give while working in trauma-informed care. Because it affects the ability to do their job, anyone in this type of work should be watchful for indications that compassion fatigue may be developing. Here are some signs to watch for:
- Providing counseling that exposes you to serious or extreme issues
- Being threatened physically or verbally while providing care
- Being confronted with a person in your care threatening suicide or ending their life
- Treating patients or clients in dangerous situations
- Providing support to someone who is depressed
- Providing ongoing care for patients who are terminally ill, grieving, or experiencing prolonged grief disorder
- Caring for a patient with a sick child or a child that died
- Providing assistance while under a lot of stress, with a lot of work responsibilities, or long work hours
- Feeling completely mentally and physically exhausted
- Feeling hopeless or powerless
Compassion fatigue develops when these triggers and events start to impact your thinking, emotions, and well-being when not at work. It’s natural for caregivers to be affected by their work, but when you begin to be overwhelmed, you may be suffering from compassion fatigue.
Even though the symptoms can be depressing and frightening, there are self-care actions you can take to get better. Knowing what signs to watch for, taking preventative precautions, and getting treatment will help.
15 Top Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue can be physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally draining for those who suffer from it. It manifests itself in a variety of ways, including:
- Poor job satisfaction
- Emotional numbness
- Feeling anxious
- Not being able to sleep
- Lack of appetite or nausea
- Getting angry or easily irritable
- Feeling detached from everything
- Headaches and body aches
- Changes in mood, drastic mood swings
- Thinking pessimistic or negative thoughts
- Not being productive, unable to concentrate
- Self-medicating, drinking, gambling, or working too much
- Neglecting relationships and friendships, feeling emotionally disconnected
- Moral injury, where you blame yourself while thinking you’re not doing enough to help those who are suffering
Strategies for Treating Compassion Fatigue
Ways to prevent and handle compassion fatigue
If left untreated, compassion fatigue symptoms can progress to mental health issues. You can’t help other people if you aren’t first helping yourself. Taking care of your own physical and mental health is important when your job is to provide care for others. Here are some ways to stay healthy while working in trauma-informed care.
- Make meaning of your work
- Experience moments of awe in nature such as standing near water or looking at the sky
- Find a balance between work and your personal life
- Take adequate time off to rest and replenish
- Choose to follow healthy routines – get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, exercise regularly
- Foster healthy relationships
- Be aware of how traumatic or stressful information affects you physically and mentally
- Practice being grateful every day
- Focus on living in the present
Realize that other people’s suffering and pain is a part of life and you don’t have any control over it. Instead, focus on the things you do have control over – your own physical and mental health. Consider going to a mental health professional for help.
The bottom line
If you try to help others without replenishing yourself, you can easily become overwhelmed and experience compassion fatigue. Be watchful for the signs and symptoms and take steps to eliminate it by making yourself the priority. Consider taking care of yourself as a partnership. If you take better care of yourself then you will be better able to take care of others. It’s a win-win!
Barbara is a leading authority and best-selling author on managing burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. As a nationally recognized keynote speaker, she motivates audiences to build their resilience and create work-life balance. Her programs help leaders and teams manage workplace chronic stressors and get over burnout at work.
Barbara's newest book, "But I Didn't Say Goodbye: Helping Families After a Suicide", is available now on Amazon - https://amzn.to/2FwS6JI
• Three weeks prior to giving birth to triplets, her father died by suicide. Her story was featured in the Emmy award winning documentary, Fatal Mistakes, Families Shattered by Suicide narrated by Mariette Hartley. Many employees are grieving personal loss. She offers programs for leaders on lost productivity and performance while managing grief at work.
• As a sought-after keynote speaker who has presented to over 500 groups since 1991, including corporations, state and national associations and non-profit organizations, Barbara offers work-life balance strategies for leaders to implement right away. With clarity and humor, her speaking engagements are designed to give audiences powerful and practical strategies of work-life balance, wellbeing, and self-care that can be implemented immediately.
• Barbara is a Board-Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress and Diplomate with the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. She received a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Master of Arts degree in community health, with a concentration in thanatology, both from Brooklyn College.