Compassion Fatigue: The Exhaustion of Caring

22 February, 2021
Compassion fatigue is most common in healthcare workers, but caregivers and others can also suffer from it. Why is it important to pay attention to it? What can you do to overcome it? Find out here!

Many authors have investigated compassion fatigue as the number of cases increases. This type of fatigue, which can be very serious, is difficult to diagnose as it’s not as well known as fatigue caused by stress, anxiety, and other hazardous emotions.

When we feel compassion for another person, we want to use all our resources to help them solve their problem and stop suffering, but this can come at a high cost to us – too high.

What is compassion fatigue?

This term began to be used in the 1990s, after psychologist Charles Figley observed a series of symptoms in common among health professionals, as the historical reviews on this concept point out.

A stressed woman at a table.
Compassion fatigue is common among health care personnel and individuals who care for the elderly or infirm.

Indeed, compassion is a type of response that arises when we observe the suffering of others so that we’re motivated to address their discomfort. Thus, Figley went so far as to define compassion fatigue as:

“A deep empathy for a suffering person, coupled with a strong desire to alleviate that suffering.”

Perhaps you aren’t a health care professional but you’re a caregiver for the elderly or someone who’s ill. Perhaps you’re in contact with someone who has suffered a traumatic event and this could affect you.

Today we know that even pet caregivers can suffer from compassion fatigue, which can lead to depression when left untreated.

Studies on this topic indicate that when the context and emotions are strong, there’s physical, mental, and emotional wear and tear in which stress, tension, and conflict predominate.

You may like: Caregiver Syndrome: How to Care for the Caring

Why does compassion fatigue occur?

As we’ve mentioned, compassion fatigue occurs when we have frequent contact with people who have experienced trauma or are living with emotional pain. It’s also more likely to arise when we don’t practice self-care.

If there isn’t any balance between the help we give to others who are suffering, and the duty we have to preserve our mental and emotional health, then our compassion can drag us into suffering similar to that of the person we care for.

Compassion fatigue is also known as empathy burnout syndrome. Although it isn’t recorded in mental health manuals by that name-or emotional exhaustion.

Two women holding hands.
People with compassion fatigue come to experience symptoms similar to those experienced by people for whom they feel empathy.

What are the symptoms?

This condition acts like post-traumatic stress disorder and may present the following signs:

  • Re-experiencing: The caregiver feels that they’re reliving the traumatic event, even though they weren’t the protagonist of the event.
  • Avoidance: Physical isolation from other people.
  • Hyperarousal: Constant tension and alertness.

The person suffering from this fatigue can experience everything just like the traumatized person, going to the extreme of wanting to avoid places related to the traumatic events.

That is why we need to take measures to avoid it.

Discover: How to Help Your Child Overcome Their Pet’s Death

How can we prevent compassion fatigue?

Although some research warns that compassion fatigue cannot be prevented, but can be alleviated, there are some mechanisms that we can put in place to avoid burnout.

Some suggestions to avoid falling into this situation are the following:

  • Work on one’s own strengths so as not to suffer emotionally.
  • Set healthy boundaries.
  • Eat well.
  • Practice leisure activities.
  • Resort to breathing techniques.
  • Practice mindfulness.
  • Exercise or take walks.
  • Enjoy nature.
  • Do mediation or yoga.
  • Get enough rest.
  • Avoid falling into the belief that you can solve everything, even the problems of people who have experienced trauma.
  • When leaving work, avoid repeating what happened in conversations with family members, as this can negatively affect other family members as well.
  • Seek support from your network of friends.
  • Seek support from other health professionals.
A woman with a psychologist due to compassion fatigue.
Family and professional support is important to overcome compassion fatigue. If necessary, they should resort to psychological therapy.

Conclusion

You must keep in mind that, even if an episode that others have lived through is very painful, we cannot give them all the resources they need to feel better. Each person must go through the process at their own pace.

If you take care of another person, avoid playing the role of “savior.” You’re a human being and you do only what is within your reach. Your emotional well-being comes first and is necessary to be able to continue providing support to those who have experienced difficult events.

  • Boyle, D. A. (2016). Fatiga por compasión: el precio de la atención. Nursing (Ed. Española). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nursi.2016.04.010
  • Campos-Vidal, J. F., Cardona-Cardona, J., & Cuartero-Castañer, M. E. (2017). Afrontar el desgaste: cuidado y mecanismos paliativos de la fatiga por compasión. Alternativas. Cuadernos de Trabajo Social. https://doi.org/10.14198/altern2017.24.07
  • Figley, C. R. (2002). Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists’ chronic lack of self care. Journal of Clinical Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.10090
  • Figley, C. R. (1995). Compassion fatigue as secondary traumatic stress disorder: An overview. In Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatised.
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