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

Updated August 27, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Kristen Hardin

Deciding that you want to spend time helping others can feel good. People who go on to become a therapist or a healthcare worker will often find that their careers can be fulfilling. What many may not anticipate, however, is that their decision can often lead to a hidden danger: compassion fatigue. This issue may not be discussed while you are navigating your career, but it is something that you should be aware of long before it has had the chance to develop. With the right tools, this is a manageable problem that will help you become a more effective caregiver.

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Whether you are looking to learn more about the topic, anticipate that you will experience compassion fatigue, or already have experienced compassion fatigue, here is a comprehensive guide on the condition. Let’s take a closer look at what compassion fatigue is and how you can better avoid it throughout your career!

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

When it comes to compassion fatigue (CF), awareness is the first step towards preventing it. The biggest issue, however, is that many will often mistake this condition for other problems. For example, burnout and compassion fatigue are commonly used interchangeably to describe this condition. Although burnout may be a symptom of CF, it does not encompass the entirety of what someone with CF may experience. That said, we first have to define compassion fatigue, burnout, and all the other components to know exactly what it is.

Put simply, compassion fatigue is an extreme state of stress in which those affected will be unable to properly care for their patients. CF may feature symptoms of trauma (secondary traumatic stress that may stem from their work with patients) and burnout. Both of these can greatly impact a healthcare professional’s ability to continue working effectively. Of course, this definition is still relatively vague and requires further clarification to fully understand the condition. Here are some of the symptoms of CF that you may experience if you do develop it.

Symptoms Of Compassion Fatigue

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The symptoms of compassion fatigue can be quite hard for caregivers to deal with. These symptoms often develop over time and will include:

  • Issues carrying out responsibilities in all areas of your life, not just professionally
  • PTSD and Depression (These may develop but are not guaranteed to. However, caregivers who frequently encounter disturbing situations may be traumatized by these situations, leading to more problematic disorders.)
  • Experiencing intense, out-of-control emotions
  • Reduced cognitive abilities, along with trouble making good judgments or engaging in inappropriate behaviors
  • Becoming isolated and withdrawn
  • Losing confidence, morale, self-worth, and motivation
  • Losing your sense of self as well as questioning your personal views and opinions (if you are a person of faith, your spirituality may come under question too)
  • Feeling like you’ve lost your purpose and meaning in life
  • A sense of anger towards those who have caused injustices to your patients
  • Not being able to meet your physical and mental needs

Compassion fatigue, like burnout, tends to happen over time. These two conditions will often share many similarities that will blend together as you are dealing with the impact of both. Some of these shared symptoms include:

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

As you can see from the above, compassion fatigue can be serious if you do not know how to properly prevent its development. The good news is that, once these symptoms are recognized, compassion fatigue is something that you can recover from and manage as you move forward. However, you need to know these strategies ahead of time. How can you care for yourself to treat and prevent compassion fatigue?

Compassion Fatigue: Treatment And Prevention Strategies

CF may make its appearance over time when we start to lose sight of maintaining a balanced lifestyle. However, with the proper awareness and self-care, we can return to our normal state of being. After all, if we aren’t balanced and healthy, it can be hard to help others lead their best lives. Here are some self-care tips that will allow you to begin tackling compassion fatigue.

Self-Care Strategies For CF

  1. Learn What Triggers You Or Causes Stress: Being a responsible caretaker means knowing how to take care of yourself, no matter your profession. Whenever you encounter a situation that triggers you or stresses you out, take some time to figure out how to respond. This may include some of the self-care tips below. Additionally, you may need to learn certain coping mechanisms to deal with these problems as they arise. If you continuously stress yourself out or put yourself in harm’s way, it can only cause problems later on.
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  1. Balance Your Professional And Personal Lives: Too much of anything is usually a problem. If you’re too focused on your personal life, you may not be able to effectively help those who are under your care. If you’re too focused on your professional life, you risk your mental health and well-being. Learning how to balance the two is important to make sure that you do not become too involved and risk developing compassion fatigue.
  2. Take Care Of Your Health: Maintaining your health is always a good idea. However, when you are at risk of encountering things that may affect your mental health, it should be a focus point. The good news is that making the right lifestyle choices can be fairly straight forward. Prioritize getting enough sleep, getting plenty of water and healthy foods, and exercising regularly. This will improve your mood and help you develop habits that can reduce the impact of stress and other problems.
  3. Maintain Your Relationships With Friends And Family: Our friends and family are our support system. However, they cannot be there for us if we push away from them. Maintaining these connections is another important aspect of strong mental health. Make it a point to connect with your close friends and family regularly to do simple things like spend time together and chat. If you do have anything you need to vent about, you know that you have someone who is there for you at all times!
  4. Stay Focused On Meeting Your Goals: When you become too focused on patients, it can be easy to lose yourself. One way to navigate this is to remind yourself of your goals and work towards them daily. This way, you have something exciting in your own life that will keep you anchored and focused.
  5. Consider Seeking Out Professional Resources: Compassion fatigue is something that many caregivers experience. Whether you are a therapist or a healthcare professional, there are resources out there in your field that can give you more insight into how to handle this issue. Learning from others can be a great way to see that you can take care of it yourself.
  6. Remember The Positive Impact You Are Making: It can be harder to find the joy in our job if we 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.
  7. Take Time Off When Needed: We all need a break. Even if you are in love with your job, it can easily become a point of stress and fatigue over time. Whenever your job becomes too much for you, find out how you can break away and recharge. It is okay to take care of yourself also!
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When Compassion Fatigue Becomes Severe: Getting Help

If you experience compassion fatigue, it may be different from how others experience it. For example, if your mental health begins declining and you develop a disorder, using the self-care tips above may not be enough. 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.

BetterHelp is an online counseling platform dedicated to making therapy more convenient and affordable. As someone who may be quite busy with helping others, chances are that trying to find the right counselor for you can be difficult. Fortunately, BetterHelp allows you to match with a certified counselor from the comfort of your own home at a time that works best for you.

While a career helping others can certainly be rewarding, you want to make sure that it doesn’t become too much for you to handle. If you are worried about developing compassion fatigue or if you have it right now, the information above will help you better understand the condition and what you can do to treat it. Remember, it is easier to give back to others when you are energized and taken care of.


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