Compassion Fatigue And You: How To Avoid Burnout And Prioritize Self-Care

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Choosing to spend your time helping others can be a noble and admirable decision. People who pursue careers to help others often find significant fulfillment in their careers. This positive feeling of helping others is sometimes called “compassion satisfaction.” 

Medical residents, crisis counselors, therapists, nurses, clinical health care providers, social workers, those who work in clinical psychology, first responders, and other professionals in similar fields may all experience compassion satisfaction.

Similarly, non-professionals who devote their time and emotional energy to caring for family or friends in a non-professional capacity may find supporting their loved ones meaningful and vital, which is another form of compassion satisfaction. 

What many may not anticipate, however, is that helping others can sometimes lead to something referred to by the term “compassion fatigue”. Even those in careers that don’t involve medical care can experience compassion fatigue, like lawyers (according to the American Bar Association.)

The issues of burnout and compassion fatigue may not be discussed while navigating your career or life choices as a caregiver or helper. However, being aware of this fatigue may better support you in your career or caregiving duties. With the right tools, self-awareness, and self-compassion, you may be able to manage compassion fatigue levels.

If you want to learn more about preventing or overcoming compassion fatigue, there are a few steps you can take to recognize the warning signs. 

Are you experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue?

What is compassion fatigue?

Regarding compassion fatigue (CF), awareness can be one of the first steps toward preventing it. This condition is often common among people who care for a loved one or work in a career centered around helping others.

Many individuals may mistake compassion fatigue symptoms for other problems. For example, burnout and compassion fatigue are commonly used interchangeably. Although burnout may be a symptom of CF, it does not encompass what someone with CF may experience.

Compassion fatigue is an extreme state of ongoing stress caused by caring for an individual or group. This can lead to a primary or secondary stress reaction, and those affected by CF may be unable to properly care for their clients, patients, loved ones, or themselves. The American Institute of Stress explains that compassion fatigue can result from the emotional strain of exposure to working with those who are in traumatic or unfortunate situations.

Symptoms of CF vary by individual but may feature:

  • Signs of trauma (either from experiencing trauma directly or from secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma that may stem from working with patients)

  • Emotional exhaustion

  • Mental burnout

These symptoms may significantly impact a professional or caregiver’s ability to continue working effectively. Not only that but symptoms may be further complicated by working long hours without taking days off.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue explained

The emotional and physical symptoms of compassion fatigue can cause caregivers to feel overwhelmed. When high levels of compassion for others are constantly given, one’s own self-care may be neglected out of necessity.

As a result, those experiencing compassion fatigue may see the warning signs and symptoms develop over time. These signs and symptoms may include the following: 

  • Difficulty carrying out responsibilities in all areas of life, not just professionally or in the role of a caregiver

  • PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and depression 

  • Experiencing intense, out-of-control emotions and feelings

  • Reduced cognitive abilities, along with trouble making sound judgments, which may lead to a greater risk of engaging in inappropriate behaviors

  • Becoming isolated and withdrawn

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Losing feelings of confidence, morale, self-worth, and motivation

  • Losing a sense of self as well as questioning personal views and opinions (for instance, a person of faith may question their spirituality)

  • Feeling a loss of purpose and meaning in life

  • A sense of anger towards those who have caused injustices to your patients, clients, or those you’re caring for

  • Not being able to meet your own physical and mental needs, which may put you at a greater risk for health problems

  • Total exhaustion

  • Feeling overwhelmed by the empathy of witnessing and taking on the suffering of those who have experienced extreme stressful situations, trauma, or hardship

  • Emotional and physical fatigue and common signs of stress, such as muscle tension and an inability to get adequate sleep

Compassion fatigue, like burnout, may happen over time. These two conditions can display many similarities that may blend as caregivers experience the impact of both. 

Some of these symptoms of mental burnout and compassion fatigue may include the following:

  • Feeling emotionally exhausted to the point that you find no more joy in your work or are unable to connect with your patients or clients
  • Not receiving the same sense of achievement or satisfaction from your job or role that you previously experienced
  • Feeling mentally exhausted and unable to focus or work properly
  • Experiencing physical fatigue, which can make it harder to lead your day-to-day life
  • Feeling disconnected from yourself and the world around you

Compassion fatigue can be a very serious experience if you do not know how to adequately address it or prevent its development in the first place. However, once symptoms are recognized, treating compassion fatigue may be accomplished through various treatment and prevention strategies. 

Compassion fatigue: Treatment and prevention strategies

CF may appear over time as a person loses sight of maintaining a balanced lifestyle. However, with the proper awareness and self-care, you may return to your normal state of being and feel compassion, satisfaction, and balance.

Think of it like the instructions given during an airplane safety talk: it's important to attend to your own oxygen mask before helping someone with their oxygen mask. This works as a metaphor for what to do when experiencing CF. When you practice self-care, you may improve the quality of life for yourself and those you’re helping and supporting. It can be hard to care for others when we don’t feel positive emotions or physically well. 


Self-care strategies for compassion fatigue 

Here are some self-care tips that may allow you to begin tackling compassion fatigue.

Learn what triggers you or causes stress 

Being a responsible caretaker can mean knowing how to care for yourself, no matter your profession. Whenever you encounter a situation with excessive demands that cause stress, note it down as something to potentially avoid or problem-solve for the future.  

You may decide to learn coping mechanisms to deal with these problems as they arise. For example, if you find that accident scenes are triggering for you as a first responder, you may need to find coping mechanisms to deal with accident scenes or other stressors. If you continuously stress yourself out or put yourself in harm’s way, it could cause problems later. Although specific stressors may not be preventable, setting boundaries for yourself may benefit you. 

Balance your professional and personal life 

Too much of anything may be a problem. If you’re too focused on your personal life, you may be unable to help those under your care effectively. If you’re too focused on your professional life, you might risk your mental health, well-being, and the well-being of your friends and family. 

Learning how to balance the two parts of your life can be essential to ensure you do not become too involved and risk developing compassion fatigue. Studies show that a positive work-life balance improves mental health substantially. 

Take care of your physical health 

Maintaining your physical health may be beneficial for your mental health. A valuable self-care plan may start with prioritizing getting enough sleep, consuming plenty of water and nutritious foods, and exercising regularly. 

Striving to improve these areas can improve your mood and help you develop habits that reduce the impact of stress on your job or caring duties. 

Maintain your relationships with friends and family 

Our friends and family are often our support systems. However, they may not be able to support us if we pull away from them. Maintaining these connections can improve mental health, as studies show the importance of social relationships.  

Try to connect with your close friends and family regularly, and in person, not just through social media. You might start by spending time together and chatting for an hour or two daily. If you have anything you need to vent about, these individuals may be able to support you when things get tough. 

Connect with peers 

Look for peer support from others who work in fields that involve providing care or help. Support groups and online journals detailing the experiences of others are available for caregivers. They can be a source of self-care, compassion, and connection. For example, nurses may find the article Compassion Fatigue; A Nurse’s Primer from the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing helpful.

You might also find a self-care buddy; you may help each other stay balanced. It may be helpful for this person to be someone in the same profession as you. For example, if you work in a forensic field and have to view graphic evidence, you may experience CF. Talking with someone who also deals with graphic evidence may help you find common ground and discuss your common experiences.

Stay focused on meeting your goals 

When you become too focused on those you’re helping, you may lose sight of your goals. One way to navigate this is to remind yourself of other areas of your life where you have goals and work towards them in small ways when you can. Having something exciting to look forward to in your life may also keep you on track in your career. 

Consider seeking out professional resources 

Compassion fatigue is something that many caregivers experience. There may be resources in your field that can give you more insight into how to handle this scenario. You might try looking for help both in and outside of work. 

For instance, if a disturbing or traumatic situation occurs at work, try asking how to connect with crisis counselors for self-care and the care of others. Your professional association may have resources for combatting CF if you work in clinical psychology or as a health clinician.

Remember your positive impacts 

Finding joy in your job can be more challenging if you focus on the pain that others are experiencing. Turn your attention to your successes and their progress rather than the things that are harder to deal with.

Take a break when you need it 

Needing a break can be normal. Even if you love your job, it may become a point of stress and fatigue over time. Whenever your job becomes too much for you, find out how to break away and recharge. Focusing on the practice of self-care is not selfish.

If you are busy or can’t find time to care for yourself, mindfulness and meditation can be done on the go as well. Studies show that regular meditation can increase your self-compassion. 

When compassion fatigue feels severe: Getting professional help

If your mental health begins declining or you experience a mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, or substance use disorder, self-care may not feel like enough.  

By providing therapy, a professional may help you find an effective treatment plan for your compassion fatigue. If you aren’t experiencing a mental health concern, a therapist may help you manage or prevent compassion fatigue and restore compassion satisfaction.

In therapy, you can find helpful, healthy self-care strategies, tools to manage work stress and a busy schedule, and ways to develop self-compassion and handle self-doubt. 

If you’ve experienced a traumatic event or have experienced secondary trauma through your clients or patients, a therapist can help you with healthy coping strategies. If CF is taking a significant toll on you, one way to take care of it is by visiting a therapist in person or online.

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Are you experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue?

Many busy professionals opt to try online counseling due to its ease of use. Not having to drive to another appointment may allow you more time to relax and care for yourself at home. Additionally, studies have shown that online cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in treating the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Another review of 17 studies about online counseling found that it is more cost-effective than in-person treatments.

Suppose you’re looking to get support immediately. In that case, you might consider an online therapy platform such as BetterHelp, which offers a significant database of therapists specializing in various areas. Many care professionals seek help, and there is no shame in needing to be cared for, even when you are usually the caretaker. 


While a career helping others may be rewarding, ensuring you have healthy self-care habits in place may ensure that your work doesn’t start to feel like too much. It can be easier to give back to others when you are energized and taking care of your mental and physical health. 

To prevent compassion fatigue and focus on your mental health and well-being, it is often helpful to understand that CF may develop from experiencing secondary traumatic stress. Healthcare professionals can often learn about compassion fatigue and the emotional toll it takes through continuing education classes. For other non-professional caregivers, it can be important to seek support through mental health care professionals.

Therapy can be an excellent form of self-care and self-compassion. If you want to speak to a mental health professional, consider reaching out to a counselor for support.

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