What Is Compassion Fatigue And How To Overcome It

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated April 5, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Are you in a position where you are constantly helping others and you’re starting to struggle? It may be compassion fatigue. While it may sound like something made up or harsh, the reality is that it’s something many people can suffer from. And, if you’re struggling with it, there are ways to overcome it.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is something that used to be seen more in healthcare-related positions. The American Institute of Stress defines it as what happens when someone that cares for traumatized people begins to experience emotional strain as a result of their work. It can be from working with one single case or through working in the field for years. Sometimes it’s referred to as “second-hand shock”.

Who does it impact?

There are many different people that can experience compassion fatigue. A few examples include:

  • Healthcare workers
  • First responders
  • Therapists
  • Caregivers

It’s also been found that some attorneys who are exposed to graphic images or traumatic cases can be impacted by compassion fatigue as well.

The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project shares that some people entering a career as a helping professional already experience compassion fatigue. It can be something that people live with if they have grown up with a strong emphasis on caring for others first.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue

Some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue are the same as symptoms experienced by people living with chronic stress. This can include symptoms such as:

  • Emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Depersonalization
  • Lack of job satisfaction
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling emotionally detached
  • Disconnecting from others
  • Lack of interest in behaviors that used to be enjoyable

Those that are struggling may also experience a change in behaviors. For example, you may find that your spending habits become out of control, or that you use drugs or alcohol to mask the difficult emotions that you’re dealing with.

You may also experience feelings of depression and hopelessness. And, you just don’t feel like yourself even though you may not be able to pinpoint why.

What causes compassion fatigue

Some people think that compassion fatigue is the same as burn out. However, even though there can be some similarities between the two, they are not the same. Burn out is something that occurs over time. It has a typical path that it follows from levels of excitement through to stagnation, frustration, and apathy.

Compassion fatigue can come on quickly. However, it can be something that builds up over time such as with caregivers that slowly feel that their care for patients is starting to erode. The good news is, that it’s also something that you can recover from with treatment. And, it’s believed that the faster you notice it and address it, the faster your recovery may be.

What you can do to overcome compassion fatigue

Self-care is one of the most effective ways of both treating and preventing compassion fatigue. Here are some of the steps that you can take to protect yourself or work on recovering from it.

Understand what you feel is normal

The first thing that can help is to acknowledge that what you’re feeling and experiencing is normal. There is no reason to feel ashamed or bad about what you’re feeling. This can be important in helping you take the necessary steps to address it.

If you’re used to putting the care of others before yourself, you may experience feelings of guilt over how you are feeling and thinking right now. But there is nothing for you to feel bad about. Instead, it’s important to focus on helping and taking care of yourself. This may be a struggle if you’re not used to putting your needs first, but it’s an important step to take.

Prioritize self-care

It’s important that you take care of yourself. This includes things like getting enough sleep each night, eating the right foods, and exercising. These are all things that are easy to neglect when you are in the habit of taking care of other people’s needs first or when you feel overwhelmed or exhausted.

However, self-care is important for you to continue having the energy that you need to make it through your day. Self-care also means taking the time to do something that you enjoy or that helps to relax you. This could be taking a bubble bath, reading a book, or going for a walk outside.

If you’re a caregiver for someone, you may struggle with feeling guilty for taking the time to do activities like this, but you shouldn’t. These are important things to help you stay physically and mentally healthy. And, you’re not able to be as much of a help to anyone else when you are worn out and exhausted.

Find an outlet

It’s important to have someone that you can talk to about your experiences and emotions. While it can help to talk to someone that understands where you’re coming from and has personal experience with the things that you do, it’s not necessary. Any trusted person in your life can be a good outlet if they offer a listening ear.

Support groups can also be a helpful outlet. They allow you to connect with others that have lived experience with the challenges that you’re facing. It can be easier to open up and not feel judged when you know that the other people are going through the same thing as you.

You may also find it helpful to talk with a mental health professional such as a licensed therapist with BetterHelp. A therapist will not only be someone that you can talk to, but they can also help you learn effective coping strategies for dealing with the stress and emotion in your life. It can be helpful to work with a therapist that has experience treating those with compassion fatigue.

Journaling

It can also be helpful to write out your thoughts and emotions at the end of your day. This can be a good way to process through the events of your day and relieve any of the stress and pent up emotion that you were experiencing. It can also help you to see things in a new light and from a new perspective.

Keeping things bottled up inside of you can be dangerous for your physical and mental health. Some people find that journaling allows them to release their stress, worries, and difficult emotions. You may even find that you sleep better at night after taking a few minutes to clear your head from the events of the day.

Spend time doing other activities

It can be helpful to spend time doing things outside of your caregiving/helping activities. Find hobbies that are unrelated to the work that you do. Try old hobbies that you haven’t done in a while. Or, develop new hobbies. You may enjoy connecting with others through a social meet-up group where you can learn a new skill or participate in a hobby while also meeting new friends. You may find it helpful to connect with people that are disconnected from the areas of your life that are contributing to compassion fatigue.

Build healthy habits

If you’re struggling with compassion fatigue, it’s not just about helping you to feel better right now, it’s also about helping prevent you from experiencing this again. This is why it’s important to develop healthy habits in your life. The tips that are shared above can be things that you add to your life on a regular basis.

Things such as self-care and spending time with friends shouldn’t be things that you only do once you reach the point of feeling fatigued, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Find ways to incorporate them into your regular schedule. This may not be easy, but it can be important in helping you to get and stay physically and mentally healthy.

Take time off

You may also find it helpful to step away for a period of time from your tasks. Depending on this situation, it might not be something that you’re able to do. However, if you can, it can be helpful. Creating this space can give you time to relax, recharge, and work on forming these new healthy habits in your life.

Taking time away from caring for others in the same capacity that you have been can give you a much-needed break to learn to reconnect with your emotions.

Avoid escape behaviors

It may be tempting to use escape behaviors in an effort to cover your emotions or unwind at the end of your day. These can include things like shopping, drinking, or binging on TV or movies. These behaviors may feel like they’re helping at the moment, but they’re not doing anything to address the cause of your compassion fatigue.

It helps to be intentional about the way that you spend your time and care for yourself. If you’re having a hard time taking the steps that you need to or feeling motivated to, talking with a therapist can be a good first step.

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