Identifying and Preventing Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a legitimate concern among medical professionals who, especially now, regularly encounter people in traumatic situations with heart-breaking needs and circumstances. For them, caring too much is not only a possibility, but it is the underlying cause of a condition known as “compassion fatigue.”

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue, also called vicarious or secondary traumatization, is a condition that adversely affects the ability to feel and care for others. It develops due to exposure to those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. Overusing skills of compassion by assisting others erodes these abilities, resulting in chronic lack of concern or emotional blunting.

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, “When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled-up emotions and substance abuse head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary traumatic stress disorder now labeled: compassion fatigue.”

What Are the Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue?

Symptoms of compassion fatigue vary greatly but involve physical, behavioral and psychological concerns. Some examples include:

  • Physical: Exhaustion, insomnia, headaches, increased susceptibility to illness, somatization (translating emotional stress into physical symptoms) and hypochondria (anxiety or hyperawareness about potential physical ailments).
  • Behavioral: Increased use of alcohol or drugs, missing work, anger and irritability, impaired decision-making, problems with personal relationships, leaving the profession, and avoidance of or compromised care for clients.
  • Psychological: Emotional exhaustion, distancing (avoiding friends, family and colleagues), negative self-image, depression, reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy, cynicism, resentment, feelings of professional helplessness and diminished sense of career enjoyment.

How Does Compassion Fatigue Differ from Burnout?

Burnout is also common among medical professionals and shares some symptoms with compassion fatigue, which can make it difficult to distinguish between the two.

Notwithstanding these similarities, the conditions differ from each other in several key ways:

  • Compassion fatigue may have a more rapid onset while burnout emerges over time
  • Compassion fatigue tends to be less severe and has a faster recovery
  • Compassion fatigue can occur due to exposure after a single severe case or can be due to a cumulative level of trauma experienced over time. Burnout cannot result from a single or few events; it is a cumulative process
  • Compassion fatigue is a direct result of trauma-related incidents, whereas burnout is not trauma-related and is associated with increased workload and institutional stress

Preventing Compassion Fatigue

The first line of defense against compassion fatigue is developing awareness for the onset of symptoms. Early identification can help prevent the condition from worsening. Answering the questions below may help you identify the signs or increased risk of compassion fatigue:

  • Does it seem like something is interfering with your usual ability to function?
  • Do your normal skills seem altered or different in some way?
  • Do typical or ordinary work situations or incidents feel traumatic?
  • Do you regularly wake up tired in the morning and struggle to get to work?
  • Do you feel like you are working harder but accomplishing less?
  • Are you easily frustrated or irritated?
  • Do you feel like you’re losing compassion for others?
  • Do you routinely feel bored or disgusted?
  • Are you experiencing frequent illnesses or aches and pains that don’t have obvious causes?

If you suspect you may be suffering from compassion fatigue, there is help available. Compassionate support, insightful information and authentic self-care will enable you to understand the complex emotions you’re dealing with and set you on the path to recovery.

Some of the most effective ways to move past compassion fatigue are:

  • Take time to yourself,
  • Listen to the plight of others and try to put yourself in their shoes
  • Step away (emotionally or even physically) from the source of your stress that may be causing your indifference towards others’ suffering
  • Speak to colleagues or professionals to address your concerns

If compassion fatigue has led you or a loved one to drink more, take drugs, or decompensate, this is the time to seek help.