What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Animal rescuers will sometimes take time off from social media to get a break from seeing suffering animals. Celiafoto/Shutterstock

Imagine the life of someone who spends her day helping those in need. A social worker who deals with the homeless and the forgotten. Doctors and nurses who see constant pain and suffering. First responders who enter dangerous situations, unable to always save everyone. Veterinarians and pet rescue workers who witness the abused and unwanted. The cycle of suffering they see is unending.

It's only natural that this overbearing stress would take a toll on the lives of the people who handle it every day.

"The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet," wrote Rachel Naomi Remen, author of "Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal."

Caregivers often develop their own symptoms in response to the pain they witness. It's called compassion fatigue.

Charles Figley, Ph.D., director of the Tulane University Traumatology Institute, is the premiere researcher on compassion fatigue. He defines it as, "a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper."

Compassion fatigue is also sometimes known as vicarious traumatization or secondary traumatic stress. It's sometimes described as "the cost of caring" for others in emotional and physical pain.

The people drawn to caring professions are also more likely those who would be affected by compassion fatigue, Figley tells MNN.

"You have to give hope and be empathic and compassionate [in those roles]. If you don’t have any empathy, you won’t have any compassion fatigue," Figley says. "If you can sit with someone who is in tremendous pain or anxiety and provide a source of relief or comfort, it’s wonderful. But it’s hard."

People in these jobs have figured out how to help others through understanding. But the tradeoff, Figley says, is that they end up carrying some of that pain.

The statistics paint a distressing image:

  • 86.9 percent of emergency response workers reported having symptoms after being exposed to highly distressing events with traumatized people
  • 90 percent of new doctors, between 30 to 39 years old, say that their family life has suffered as a result of their work
  • A study in Ontario found high levels of burnout and stress among oncology workers and discovered about one-third of them were considering leaving the field
  • A 2015 study discovered that people serving the community — such as firefighters, police and animal rescue workers — were found to have the highest rates of suicide in the workplace: 5.3 per 1,000,000 workers

Signs of compassion fatigue

Symptoms of compassion fatigue can range from physical to psychological. A caregiver can have anxiety or trouble sleeping, anger issues or feelings of powerlessness. Physically, they might experience headaches, dizziness, nausea or stomach issues.

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, the symptoms are often "disruptive, depressive, and irritating" and can also include:

  • Bottled-up emotions
  • Isolation from others
  • Substance abuse
  • Compulsive behaviors such as overspending and overeating
  • Poor self-care
  • Apathy, sadness, no longer taking pleasure in activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mentally and physically tired
  • Preoccupied

How to fight it

caregiver with elderly woman
Constantly caring for others can take a toll on those who see an unending cycle of need and pain. Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

Obviously, people who choose to help people and animals can't help but sympathize and feel for them. If they couldn't, they'd likely be in a different line of work. But if you're a caregiver, first responder or rescue worker, there are things you can do to help avoid the paralyzing crash of emotions when the cost of caring becomes overwhelming.

Figley says it's important to compartmentalize and turn off the TV, computer, cellphone or whatever other stimulus triggers your worries. Find ways to deal with stress, and then talk to someone in the same business who understands what you're going through and may be able to tell you what has helped them get through it.

Some people use reminders of their lives outside work to keep themselves grounded. They might have family photos on their desks or their children's artwork on the walls. Some in the pet rescue world say they occasionally take breaks from social media to avoid the constant barrage of abused animals. Giving themselves a short respite leaves them feeling refreshed when they dive back in.

Workplace coping strategies can also include taking regular breaks throughout the day, mental health days if you need them, support groups or peer counseling and open talks with managers.

You can also take basic, but critical, self-care steps to keep you at your healthiest: Get enough sleep, eat healthy and exercise. Make sure you also spend time with friends and hobbies outside of your work.

Find other ways to cope, like keeping a journal to connect with your feelings. Other positive coping mechanisms might include meditation, deep breathing, walking in nature or just talking to friends. Find something that works for you.

To see if you have symptoms of compassion fatigue, take this Professional Quality of Life (ProQOL) Self-Test.