Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a term used to describe a condition that occurs when clergy, mental health professionals, emergency care workers, human service workers, or advocate volunteers are overcome with providing care to others. Webster’s defines compassion fatigue as a “feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by suffering or misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the pain or remove its cause” (Webster, 1989, p. 229). According to the American Psychological Association, professionals who absorb a person’s pain and carry it with them, is experiencing compassion fatigue.

Although compassion fatigue is often interchanged with the term burnout, it is not the same. Burnout is characterized as cumulative events that are fueled by stress and highly demanding jobs. Conversely, compassion fatigue comes from dealing with others who are suffering from a trauma and are in great pain. In her article Compassion Fatigue: The Professional Liability for Caring Too Much, Rosemary Thompson states,

Compassion fatigue develops over time – taking weeks, sometimes years to surface. Basically, it’s a low level, chronic clouding of caring and concern for others. Over time, the ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through the overuse of skills expressing compassion. Compassion fatigue occurs when caregivers become emotionally drained from hearing about and being exposed to the pain and trauma of the people they are helping.”

Charles Figley, founder of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute lists the following as symptoms of compassion fatigue: low morale, reduced ability to concentrate, guilt, appetite changes, intolerance, depleted energy, insomnia, immune system impairment, apathy, depression, negativity, isolation, perfectionism, rigidity, regression, feeling of pervasive hopelessness, loss of purpose, questioning the meaning of life, shock, decreased interest in intimacy and sex, anger, and mood swings. A self-test to assess your susceptibility to compassion fatigue can be taken on the following website:

It is crucial that the professionals who may be experiencing compassion fatigue pay attention to the symptoms and seek ways to deal with the fatigue. The best way to offer service and help to others when emotional, physical and spiritual resources become depleted is to be diligent about self care. Thompson’s article offers some wonderful reminders of ways to care for ourselves:

  • Know your triggers and vulnerabilities.
  • Resolve personal issues and monitor your reaction to pain.
  • Allow yourself to be human and grieve.
  • Have realistic expectations of yourself and recognize your limitations.
  • Find opportunities to debrief. Debrief yourself, debrief with friends, and/or debrief with a professional.
  • Delegate other life responsibilities.
  • Take help from others.
  • Develop a support system to protect yourself from further fatigue and emotional exhaustion.
  • Remember that victims and helpers grow from their experiences.
  • Eat nutritious food.
  • Exercise
  • Rest
  • Set and keep healthy boundaries.
  • Think about the idea that if you never say “no” what is your “yes” worth?
  • Develop and reward a sense of humor.
  • Spend quality time alone in prayer and meditation.
  • Recharge your battery daily.

Knowing what to expect when crisis occurs is one of the best defenses against compassion fatigue. Other resources for dealing with compassion fatigue include: