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Compassion Fatigue: Symptoms to Look For

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 17, 2020

If you work in a professional setting that deals with other people’s trauma day in and day out — at a hospital, in a psychologist’s office, or at a homeless shelter, for example — you may experience a condition of extreme tiredness and desperation. This is called compassion fatigue.

What Is a Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a term that describes the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others — often through experiences of stress or trauma. Compassion fatigue is often mistaken for burnout, which is a cumulative sense of fatigue or dissatisfaction.

While burnout is one part of this form of fatigue, the term compassion fatigue encompasses a more specific experience, which may be brought about by a stressful workplace or environment, lack of resources, or excessive hours. 

This form of fatigue is sometimes called a secondary stress reaction, secondhand shock, secondary traumatic stress, or vicarious trauma — largely because of compassion fatigue’s link to careers and positions that may regularly place you in stressful situations. 

Compassion fatigue impacts a wide range of caregivers and professions. It is most common among professionals who work in a healing or helping capacity.  If you are a legal professional, medical professional, therapist, first responder, nurse, or service provider of any kind, you may be more at risk for compassion fatigue. 

For example, therapists may be affected by compassion fatigue through the experiences and stories of their patients. Some examples of common compassion fatigue triggers (causes) are:

  • Providing therapy that introduces you to extreme or severe issues
  • Being physically or verbally threatened when providing care
  • Being confronted with suicide or threats of suicide by someone under your care
  • Providing care in dangerous environments
  • Providing care to someone who experiences depression
  • Specializing in providing care for those experiencing death, grief, and bereavement (mourning)
  • Experiencing or caring for someone who has experienced the illness or death of a child 
  • Providing care under a heavy workload, excessive demands, or long hours
  • Providing service that requires you to visit accident scenes, view graphic evidence, or deal with evidence or reports of trauma 

Compassion fatigue occurs when these triggers and experiences start to affect your thoughts, moods, and well-being outside of work. Being affected by your work is a normal part of caregiving professions, but when the feeling becomes overwhelming, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue.

While the symptoms can be frightening and sometimes debilitating, there are steps you can take to heal. Recognizing the signs, taking proactive preventive measures, and seeking treatment can help. 

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue can affect your ability to do your work or complete daily activities — at least temporarily. There are signs that can indicate that you, or someone you know or work with, might be developing compassion fatigue. Here are some of the signs and symptoms to watch out for:

Mood Swings

Research shows that long-term stress can lead to moderate to severe mood swings — especially as you age. Some of the common signs of compassion fatigue due to excessive stress are:

  • Drastic shifts in mood
  • Becoming pessimistic (thinking negative thoughts) or cynical
  • Becoming overly irritable or quick to anger 

Experiencing Detachment

A common sign of compassion fatigue is a dramatic withdrawal from social connections. This can become obvious in neglected friendships or relationships. You may feel emotionally disconnected from others or experience a sense of numbness in your personal or professional life.

Addiction

Compassion fatigue has been linked with secretive self-medication or addiction. Overuse can occur in alcoholism, gambling addiction, drug addictions, or even workaholism. 

Feeling Symptoms of Anxiety or Depression

Anxious or depressive feelings and actions are common responses to stressful or traumatic situations. 

Compassion fatigue can leave you feeling anxious about the world around you — either viewing the world as dangerous or being extra cautious about personal and family safety. It can also leave you feeling depressed. You may feel demoralized or question your effectiveness as a professional. 

Trouble Being Productive

Studies show that stress associated with compassion fatigue can affect your mind and body. You may experience trouble concentrating or being productive in your personal or professional life. 

Long-term stress can affect your memory and lead to difficulty concentrating on your work. 

Insomnia 

One sign of compassion fatigue is suffering from disturbing images that may disrupt your thoughts or dreams. This may lead to insomnia and exhaustion. 

Physical Symptoms

Compassion fatigue can lead to a host of bodily symptoms. These include:

Treating Compassion Fatigue

It is common for caregivers and many professionals to feel overwhelmed by their work. If you’re starting to feel that your compassion fatigue symptoms are affecting your life, reach out to your doctor. They may refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist specializing in trauma. Your doctor may also be able to treat any physical symptoms you are experiencing. 

The right treatment for compassion fatigue depends on your individual experience. Some common treatments include:

Self Care

Emotional and physical fatigue is a common element of compassion fatigue. For many, taking time to engage in self-care can be an impactful home remedy. Self-care can include:

  • Taking time to eat well
  • Staying hydrated
  • Getting a sufficient amount of sleep
  • Staying active
  • Utilizing meditation
  • Getting a massage 

Professional Help

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your work as a caregiver, health professional, or beyond, it’s important to reach out for professional help. You may be able to ease your feelings of stress, anxiety, and exhaustion by talking with a therapist, psychiatrist, family doctor, or a professional who specializes in trauma. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Association of Family Physicians: “Overcoming Compassion Fatigue.”

American Bar Association: “Compassion Fatigue.”

American Psychological Association: “Are you experiencing compassion fatigue?”

BMC Health Services Research: ”How are compassion fatigue, burnout, and compassion satisfaction affected by quality of working life? Findings from a survey of mental health staff in Italy.”

Brain Structure & Function: “The association between stress and mood across the adult lifespan on default mode network.”

EXCLI Journal: “THE IMPACT OF STRESS ON BODY FUNCTION: A REVIEW.”

Online Journal of Issues in Nursing: “Compassion Fatigue: A Nurse’s Primer.”

Psychology Today: “Compassion Fatigue.”

University of Rochester Medical Center: “Understanding Your Response to Stress.”

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