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What is Compassion Fatigue?

Burnout. The feeling of running on empty, a sensation anyone who has ever worked hard for their career, passions, or relationships knows all too well. It happens to the best of us, and is a perfectly normal response to stress — it’s our body telling us we need to give ourself grace, and recenter. When it comes to compassion fatigue, however, navigating the emotional exhaustion we may encounter in our professional life is a bit more challenging. While we are generally good at recognizing from where or what life event burnout emerges from, emotional stresses are easy to miss, and it may take a great deal of self care and introspection to recognize where they come from. Burnout and compassion fatigue are related, though experiencing compassion fatigue not only challenges our ability to handle stress, but taxes our empathy and emotional energy in a way entirely unique. This is especially true for those of us who work in the caregiving profession, or in a job that exposes us to the traumatic events and emotional intensity experienced by others. This can include medical professionals, caregivers, and therapists, just to name a few. The signs of developing compassion fatigue are easy to miss, and today, I want to walk you through what compassion fatigue is, common symptoms of compassion fatigue, and steps you can take to maintain your mental health without losing compassion for your team, your clients, or your patients.

Understanding compassion fatigue

Recall a time in your career where you’ve felt burnout. It happens to all of us at one point or another. Beyond chronic clouding and feeling overwhelmed, try to remember the thoughts you had at that time. How would you describe those thoughts in a sentence?

They may be something like:

  • “I had trouble focusing.”
  • “I felt like I had too many commitments to give any one of them my best effort.”
  • “I was anxious about fulfilling the expectations of others.”
  • “I felt exhausted.”
Burnout emerges and pushes our mental bandwidth to its limit, and the mental exhaustion is so palpable, many of us feel it physically. Fatigue, trouble concentrating, rapid heartbeat, and anxiety are all common symptoms of burnout. Compassion fatigue is a bit trickier to deal with, since it’s not our mental energy being depleted; it’s our emotional energy. Also known as compassion stress, compassion fatigue is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that arises from the prolonged exposure to the suffering and trauma of others. It can lead to feelings of helplessness, difficulty concentrating, apathy, and a diminished capacity to empathize leading to emotional blunting. Compassion fatigue effectually reduces our ability to empathize and places us at risk for losing compassion for others by simply being too overloaded. Compassion fatigue is common to the caregiving or helping professions, where individuals are regularly exposed to the pain, suffering, and trauma of those they are assisting. In essence, their life involves putting others first on a consistent basis. What makes compassion fatigue so difficult to recognize is the fact that people in these professions excel tend to excel at empathizing and oftentimes do not notice the toll that doing so takes on their mental health when they do not maintain normal boundaries. Picture a clinical psychology practitioner or professional counselor like a psychotherapist or a social worker. Day in and day out, they spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week (oftentimes more) helping their clients navigate sometimes extremely distressing and traumatic experiences. Imagine the emotional exhaustion leading to compassion fatigue that a vocation like that entails!

What are common symptoms of compassion fatigue?

The first step towards overcoming compassion fatigue often involves recognizing the symptoms. When managed early, people experiencing compassion fatigue symptoms can relieve their stress, improve self care, and reduce the contributing factors involved.

They may look different between individuals, but the most common symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Chronic clouding or “brain fog”
  • Physical fatigue or sleep disturbance
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Increased cynicism
  • Frustration
  • Emotional exhaustion or emotional blunting
  • Reduced ability to empathize
The healing power of empathy is a gift many of us are fortunate to possess, but when we ignore these powerful compassion fatigue symptoms, this power turns into a burden. Compassion fatigue is especially hard on caregivers since it directly impacts their ability to care for their clients. It can lead to a decrease in the quality of care and place on a strain on the caregivers own mental health and wellbeing.

There are several risk factors for compassion fatigue that certain individuals may be especially predisposed to, including:

  1. Lack of sufficient training or continuing education
  2. Having a history of personal traumatic events
  3. A history of burnout and compassion fatigue
  4. Ineffective communication skills
  5. Intense empathy, having an unusually strong reaction to trauma exposure or traumatic stress
  6. Inability or unwillingness to set normal boundaries
It is admirable and brave for these special individuals to risk experiencing compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma or secondary trauma, and increased stress all for the good of their charges. Compassion stress, thankfully, can be reduced by modifying our self care approach, and engaging a positive support system. With time, it becomes possible to relieve symptoms of compassion fatigue that negatively affect our careers, relationships, and lives.

What are some strategies for treating compassion fatigue?

If you’re in the midst of compassion fatigue, I want you to know that your ability to channel and direct the healing power of compassion into your career is a beautiful gift that should never be considered a flaw, or something to be ashamed of. The last thing I want you to take away from this post is that being compassionate is a flaw; it is, in fact, a superpower that positively impacts others. Like all things in life, too much of a good thing can lead to more harm than good. Luckily, compassion fatigue as a result of consistently feeling the traumatic stress or vicarious trauma of others and the unrelenting emotional intensity of hearing such information can be treated. The solution to treating compassion fatigue and regaining control of our self care is a step-by-step process where we recognize areas where we are giving too much, and activating our positive support system.

Make self care and self compassion a priority

Prioritize self-care activities that rejuvenate both your mind and body. We spend so much time expressing compassion and giving empathy to others that we sometimes fail to practice self compassion, and remind ourselves that we are just as deserving of grace, care, and understanding. Life involves putting yourself first sometimes, and this may include regular exercise, mindfulness practices, adequate sleep, and healthy nutrition. When we notice ourselves developing compassion fatigue, it may be a sign that it’s time to refocus that empathy and compassion on our own needs.

Set healthy boundaries and practice saying no

Recognize your limitations and be assertive about setting boundaries, whether in your personal or professional life. Learn to say no when necessary to avoid overextending yourself, and remember that caregiving is often a team effort — no one person can possibly handle the vicarious trauma on their own.

Seek social support and connection

When compassion fatigue develops, we can often feel isolated or feel that no one understand what we are going through. Foster meaningful connections with colleagues, friends, or support groups. Sharing experiences and emotions can provide valuable perspective and emotional relief.

Regularly reflect on your past achievements and retain a sense of personal accomplishment

Compassion fatigue often makes us feel that we are incapable or ineffective as caregivers. Take time to acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small. Gratitude, besides being one of the core tenets of self care, can relieve symptoms of compassion fatigue by reminding us of all the good we have already done. Practice gratitude to shift focus towards the positive aspects of your work.

Seek professional help when needed

If feelings of burnout or compassion fatigue persist, don’t hesitate to seek support professional help from a therapist or counselor. When managed early with an effective counselor, compassion fatigue can be reduced with the help of a trusted therapist. Professional help can provide invaluable tools and coping strategies.


It can feel brutally unfair when compassion fatigue develops as a result of the wonderful gift of empathy, but recognizing the contributing factors and symptoms of compassion fatigue can help us counter the emotional exhaustion that comes from indirect exposure to the traumatic stress of other people. Compassion fatigue and burnout are formidable adversaries, but with the right strategies, they can be overcome. By prioritizing self-care, setting boundaries, seeking support, and acknowledging your achievements, you can renew your sense of purpose and continue your compassionate work with vigor and resilience.  Remember, your well-being is paramount in your ability to care for others.

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