You might not be familiar with the term “compassion fatigue,” but you probably recognize the idea behind it: it’s the feeling that you have no more empathy left to give.
Compassion fatigue used to be something that mostly struck health care workers, first responders, law enforcement officers and at-home caregivers. But as the pandemic continues and the 24-hour news cycle brings nonstop news of suffering from around the world, we’re all at risk of developing compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is similar to burnout. But burnout usually stems from having too much work or too many responsibilities. Compassion fatigue comes from helping others—you want to keep helping, but you’re overwhelmed from being exposed to the trauma of others (secondary traumatic stress).
Like burnout, compassion fatigue is a process. “It takes time to develop. It keeps building slowly, to a point where you start to not care about yourself or others in your life. You end up overusing your compassion skills and reserves, so you no longer have much to provide,” said Yazhini Srivathsal, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Scottsdale, AZ.
Watch for these symptoms of compassion fatigue
The sooner you notice signs of compassion fatigue, the sooner you can care for yourself and replenish your stores of empathy. Be on the lookout for:
- Feeling physical, psychological and emotional exhaustion
- Feeling helpless, hopeless or powerless
- Feeling irritable, angry, sad or numb
- A sense of being detached or having decreased pleasure in activities
- Ruminating about the suffering of others and feeling anger towards the events or people causing the suffering
- Blaming yourself and having thoughts of not having done enough to help the people who are suffering
- A decreased sense of personal and professional accomplishment
- A change in your worldview or spirituality
- Physical symptoms, including appetite and sleep disturbances, nausea and dizziness
Here’s how you can prevent and treat compassion fatigue
It’s important to take steps to reduce compassion fatigue. Untreated, the symptoms of compassion fatigue can lead to mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders and substance use disorders.
“It might sound cliché, but you need to put your own oxygen mask on before you help others with theirs,” Dr. Srivathsal said. “We need to make sure we are tending to our own emotional and physical well-being and needs while we are involved in providing care for others.”
Dr. Srivathsal recommends:
- Finding a balance between your professional and personal life and taking time off if you can
- Following self-care routines—get enough sleep, choose healthy food, get regular exercise and nurture social relationships
- Avoiding information overload and paying attention to how stressful or traumatic information affects you
- Identifying your priorities and engaging in activities that replenish and rejuvenate you
- Practicing gratitude and being in the present moment
- Understanding that suffering and pain are a part of the collective human experience, and that you do not always have control over them
- Focusing on areas that you have control over, including your thoughts and feelings, rather than having unrealistic expectations about changing things that might be beyond your control
- Seeking professional help if you need it
The bottom line
Helping others without replenishing yourself can be overwhelming and can lead to compassion fatigue. As soon as you recognize some of the warning signs, take steps to care for yourself and stay a step ahead of compassion fatigue.
If you need professional help to cope with compassion fatigue, reach out to connect with an expert at bannerhealth.com.
For more information about coping when you’re overwhelmed, check out: