When Compassion Fatigue Hits

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It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Sarah, a social worker who specializes in mental health and substance abuse, knocks on a client’s door for a scheduled at-home visit.

The patient, a 32 year-old mother of five struggling with opioid addiction, takes almost 10 full minutes to answer the door. When she finally does, she appears lethargic and disoriented.

The home itself looks like something straight out of hoarders. There are clothes, toys, and garbage everywhere. An awful stench fills the air.

Sarah has been working with this particular client for over a year now. But since the pandemic hit, things have progressively gotten worse with her behavior.

The neighbors are complaining about the kids being neglected. The police are called at least once a week. And now the landlord is threatening eviction due to the damage that has been done to the property.

Sarah knows she’s supposed to treat addiction as a disease and feel compassion toward her clients, but when she looks at this woman, she feels nothing. Sometimes, all she wants to do is scream at her to stop doing drugs.

Of course, she would never say that out loud, and she continues to treat all her clients—including this woman—with respect and professionalism. But on the inside, she feels numb and frustrated. It feels so heavy that sometimes she wonders if she should consider switching careers.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue happens when we become exhausted from caring for others. This can happen to someone in the helping profession or someone who may be a caregiver for children, elderly parents, or ill loved ones. 

It can be experienced by teachers, non-profit program managers, medical professionals, childcare workers, mental health clinicians, and the list goes on and on. It can also be experienced by mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, and others in their personal lives.

As someone who has experienced compassion fatigue from being a therapist, parent, and a volunteer, I understand what it feels like to find yourself questioning and doubting whether you’re being a good person. 

Signs and Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue can be tricky to identify because it shows up over time. Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look out for: 

  • Reduced or nonexistent feelings of sympathy or empathy
  • Feelings of anger, sadness, hopelessness, irritability, and frustration
  • Chronic exhaustion—emotional, physical or both
  • Hypersensitivity or complete insensitivity to emotional or traumatic material
  • Difficulty maintaining and enjoying personal relationships
  • Reduced sense of career fulfillment

I specialize in both career counseling and mental health, so a top challenge clients come to me with is compassion fatigue. One thing I hear from my clients all the time and above all other symptoms is that they struggle with overwhelming guilt for losing their ability to care. 

Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout

Some people mistake compassion fatigue for burnout, but they’re actually quite different—with some overlapping characteristics. 

Compassion fatigue can hit suddenly and come about as a shock to someone’s system. Many times, individuals find themselves questioning, “How did this happen?” or feel that they should easily be able to handle the physical and emotional burden of caretaking. 

Burnout can happen to the broader population—not just caregivers. Like compassion fatigue, it develops over time and for a variety of reasons. It can resemble compassion fatigue because they both have exhaustion, inefficiency, and cynicism in common.  

Burnout, however, is experienced differently in terms of feeling unable to change a certain situation no matter how hard you try. Burnout also causes you to feel like you don’t believe you can make an impact on something (or someone). 

Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, involves giving everything you have emotionally to the people you’re trying to help—but feeling like nothing positive is coming from your efforts.

How to Prevent Compassion Fatigue

If you’re suffering from compassion fatigue, there are many things you can do to prevent it from wreaking havoc over your life. Here’s what you can do:

Practice Self-Care

We often hear how important self-care is for a variety of reasons. Preventing compassion fatigue is on the top of that list. 

A good self-care routine varies from person to person, but it typically includes a balance of work and leisure activities, regular exercise, nutritious eating, spending time with loved ones, having a strong support system, and paying attention to emotional needs.

Pursue Interests and Hobbies

When taking care of others, it can be easy to forget about our own lives and what we enjoy doing. One of the most impactful ways to refresh ourselves emotionally and physically is to put in the effort to engage in interests and hobbies that we love.

Anything that feels authentically fun and enjoyable is considered an interest or hobby. You shouldn’t feel like you want to do it to be healthy or to succeed at work/financially—you should want to do it for the pure enjoyment of having fun. 

Banish Guilt and Shame

For many people, compassion fatigue can be an ongoing struggle due to the shame and guilt they have about losing their sense of caring—in addition to battling feelings that they should be doing more. 

The best way to minimize shame and guilt is for a person to find and maintain their self-worth. When a person increases their self-worth, they care about how they feel and truly embody the sense that guilt and shame are not productive feelings.

Have Emotional and Physical Boundaries

Boundaries go along with having a self-care routine. If boundaries get blurred, the self-care routine usually goes out the window. 

How do you know if you have weak boundaries in our life? If you’re skipping meals or sleep, canceling enjoyable activities, not paying attention to your feelings, and not taking enough down time, this means that you may be sacrificing these things to overfill your caregiver roles.

It’s important to remember that in order to remain compassionate and supportive of others, first and foremost, you have to be compassionate and supportive toward yourself. This involves establishing firm boundaries, which gives you the opportunity to develop an appropriate self-care routine.

Use Positive Coping Strategies

Being a caregiver in any capacity can be a stressful role, and even if you aren’t experiencing compassion fatigue, it’s important to have good coping strategies in place when stress does occur. 

When you find yourself trying to remove stress and emotional burdens with addictive behaviors such as drinking, drugs, shopping or overeating, isolating yourself from loved ones, overreacting by yelling and screaming, or being overly critical of yourself, these behaviors can have a negative impact on your mental health—potentially leading to anxiety or depression.

Positive coping strategies like meditation, walking outside, speaking with a friend, mediating, engaging in a hobby, or playing with a pet can alleviate stress and emotional burdens. They also help you build resilience.

Build and Maintain a Strong Support System

A strong support system can look different to every person, but it’s important that everyone has one. Joining a hiking group or reading club, staying connected with friends and family, and getting help with time consuming chores (housekeeping, babysitting, accounting services, etc.) are some examples of what a good support system might look like.

For some caregivers, a place to connect with others who are experiencing compassion fatigue or other caregiver stress is an important addition. A specialized support group (online or in person) who can specifically address compassion fatigue in caregivers or medical professionals (or other specific areas) can really help individuals who feel alone connect to someone who may be experiencing similar stresses.

Get Help Dealing with Compassion Fatigue 

If compassion fatigue seems to be spilling over and impacting your daily life, you may also want to consider working with a mental health professional who can individually address your concerns. 

Here at therapist.com, we provide a large network of therapists who are professionally trained to help you deal with compassion fatigue and other life challenges that might have become present due to experiencing compassion fatigue. Browse our directory of therapists to find professional help now. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzi Sena, EdS, LPC

Suzi Sena, EdS, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 20 years of experience in human resource, education, integrative mental health, career counseling and private practice settings. She earned her Master’s degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University, her Master’s in Counselor Education from Kean University, and her Ed.S. degree in Family and Marriage Therapy from The College of New Jersey. She holds numerous certifications and credentials in integrative mental health, career counseling, and human resources. She currently is in private practice where she provides integrative mental health services to individuals and couples and consulting services to employers.

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