What Is Compassion Fatigue And How To Overcome It

Medically reviewed by Kayce Bragg, LPCS, LAC, LCPC, LPC, NCC
Updated March 12, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Compassion fatigue typically affects people in caring or helping professions. It can negatively impact a person's mental and even physical health, and it can make it difficult or impossible for them to do their job without practicing self-compassion. For those who are at risk of developing compassion fatigue, it may be helpful to become familiar with the scope, symptoms, and treatment for this condition.

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Living with compassion fatigue can take a toll

What is compassion fatigue?

The American Institute of Stress defines the term compassion fatigue as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.” It’s typically seen in those who regularly interact with victims of trauma, visit accident scenes, encounter disasters, or view graphic evidence as a part of their work. These professions include, but aren’t limited to, health care providers, emergency responders, social workers, medical residents, criminal investigators, therapists, and according to the American Bar Association, even lawyers. Compassion fatigue can also have a secondary effect on a person’s loved ones. It can occur from working a single, difficult case or after working in a field with excessive demands for years.

What compassion fatigue symptoms look like

The signs of compassion fatigue can manifest in a variety of ways, but one of the hallmark symptoms is emotional numbness. Before people start to develop symptoms of compassion fatigue, they may be experiencing a significant amount of joy and emotional satisfaction from their work (referred to as compassion satisfaction.) What often happens is they reach a point where they’ve been exposed to the trauma of others so much that they start to become overloaded, in some cases experiencing vicarious trauma. Eventually, they may become unable to feel emotionally connected to their work or other parts of their life. As this feeling progresses or they continue to work long hours it may also be accompanied by other symptoms, according to the Canadian Medical Association, including:

  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Mood swings, especially toward irritability or anger
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Symptoms of depression or anxiety
  • Social withdrawal and self-isolation
  • Physical symptoms like headaches or an upset stomach
  • An increase in the use of substances like drugs or alcohol

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

The impact of compassion fatigue

This condition can have a variety of negative impacts on the well being of not only those who experience it, but the people around them.  First, the symptoms can be difficult to manage, or even debilitating. They can also lead to more serious mental health conditions if untreated, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Next, it can negatively impact a person’s relationships. Mood swings, a sense of hopelessness, and the secondary stress reaction associated with compassion fatigue may make it difficult for colleagues to work together as a team with the person, especially if their symptoms have not yet been identified. This can cause financial concerns if the person is let go due to their symptoms. Since compassion fatigue can also lead to social withdrawal, it can negatively impact a person’s relationships outside of work, too. Finally, it can impact patients or others the person is responsible for at work, since symptoms will likely affect their ability to provide care.

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The issue of compassion fatigue has gained more attention since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2020 study of healthcare workers in Spain found that both compassion fatigue and burnout were more common in those who worked in COVID-19 units.

Compassion fatigue vs. burnout

What’s the difference between these two? As an article from Tend Academy explains, burnout is the physical and emotional exhaustion that people can experience when they feel overwhelmed and powerless in their professional life, especially when combined with a sense of low job satisfaction. It notes, however, that burnout can be resolved quite easily: by changing jobs. It also doesn’t impact a person’s outlook on the world, or their ability to feel and express compassion in their work. In contrast, compassion fatigue can have lasting symptoms that often don’t disappear after a vacation or even after changing jobs or industries.

Treating compassion fatigue

The 2020 study of compassion fatigue in Spanish healthcare workers cited above notes that compassion skills programs should be implemented in workplaces like hospitals and clinics. In addition, the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that those experiencing this condition consider taking the following steps in their efforts to treat or prevent compassion fatigue.

1. Establish a self-care routine

The first step to overcoming compassion fatigue is to get proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep. These are often an important part of treatment for any mental health condition, which is supported by research. One academic paper, for example, points out the correlation that research has found between regular physical exercise and reduced anxiety, depression, and negative mood, improved self-esteem and cognitive function, and alleviation of symptoms like low self-esteem and social withdrawal. Self-care for people who are at risk of or experiencing compassion fatigue may also include taking time off of work and leaning on trusted social support. In some cases, support groups may be helpful for discussing your experiences and talking to others dealing with similar situations. It’s important to note that all of these things can be incorporated into a person’s own self-care routine to help avoid compassion fatigue, too, rather than only used as a treatment after the fact.

2. Cultivate mindfulness

One study focused on compassion fatigue in therapists and found that mindfulness may help prevent burnout and secondary traumatic stress, both of which are considered by the study to be risk factors for compassion fatigue. Mindfulness can be practiced through regular meditation, such as sitting down for ten- or fifteen-minute sessions once or twice a day. It can also be practiced throughout the day, even at work. This can be helpful for those who regularly have to interact with difficult stimuli, like graphic evidence or injury.  Taking a moment to practice awareness of one’s body and breathing a few times throughout the day may help increase mindfulness. 

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Living with compassion fatigue can take a toll

3. Develop hobbies and interests outside of work

Since compassion fatigue is typically developed at work, making time for activities or hobbies that are unrelated to the field can be beneficial. It can be helpful for a person experiencing compassion fatigue to connect with others who are not associated with the areas of their life that contributed to the condition. It can serve as a reminder that there’s a world beyond the hospital, clinic, ambulance, etc. and that there’s still plenty of joy and beauty to be had. Rekindling an interest in old hobbies, developing new ones, or joining social groups can be good ways to do this. In this way, you invest time in yourself, which then allows you to provide better care. Think of it as similar to the safety speech we hear on commercial airlines. “Make sure to take care of your own oxygen mask before taking care of someone else’s.” If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you may not have the fuel to take care of others. 

It’s worth noting that an activity related to the arts might be an especially helpful choice.

A 2016 study, which can be found through the online journal and peer-reviewed article database ScienceDirect, shows that providing therapy (specifically art therapy) to someone suffering from compassion fatigue can reduce stress, and a 2020 study found that participation in the arts is associated with lower levels of mental distress, higher levels of life satisfaction, and better mental health functioning overall.

4. Speak with a therapist

Seeking the professional help of a trained counselor can be an important step on the journey to recovering from compassion fatigue. A therapist can help you gain perspective on your feelings and your job, address the trauma you’ve experienced through your work, and develop healthy coping skills for both symptoms of this condition and the difficult situations you may face at work again in the future.

For those who prefer the convenience of connecting with a counselor virtually, online therapy platforms like BetterHelp can match clients with a therapist who can help. Research suggests that virtual therapy offers similar benefits to in-person sessions, so some may find the comfort and convenience of this method preferable. Whatever method you choose, it’s often important to process the events that have led to your experience of compassion fatigue with someone who is trained to help.

Takeaway

Compassion fatigue is getting more attention in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s always been a risk for people in the caring professions. Being able to recognize the symptoms and seek appropriate treatment can be helpful in preventing this condition among workers who provide crucial services for society.

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