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Compassion Fatigue

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Those whose work involves prolonged exposure to other people's trauma can be vulnerable to compassion fatigue, also known as secondary or vicarious trauma, and can experience acute symptoms that put their physical and mental health at risk and make them warier of giving of themselves.

Empathy is a valuable trait for soldiers, first responders, humanitarian aid workers, nurses, surgeons, therapists, advocates for victims of domestic abuse, moderators of offensive online content, and journalists on the front lines of war and disaster. But the more such individuals open themselves up to others' pain, the more likely that they will come to share those victims' feelings of heartbreak and devastation. Compassion fatigue can affect the most dedicated workers—those who work extra shifts or come in on their days off so they can continue to help, neglecting their own self-care—and it can result from exposure to a single case of trauma, or from years of accumulated “emotional residue."

Those who regularly experience vicarious trauma can neglect their own self-care and inner life as they struggle with images and stories that can’t be forgotten. Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include exhaustion, disrupted sleep, anxiety, headaches, and stomach upset, as well as irritability, numbness, a decreased sense of purpose, emotional disconnection, and problems with personal relationships. People experiencing compassion fatigue may secretly self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, gambling, or food. Left unaddressed, compassion fatigue can develop into clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The understanding that exposure to the trauma of others could put people at risk has long been understood—historian Samuel Moyn has said, “Compassion fatigue is as old as compassion,” but the term was coined by historian Carla Joinson in 1992, and further defined and researched by psychologist Charles Figley, who describes it as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.”

To be more effective, studies have shown, some workers in helping professions may benefit from what’s known as “psychic numbing,” or the ability to turn down one’s empathetic instincts while on the job, freeing up cognitive resources to find solutions to the problems in front of them rather than becoming paralyzed by the scope of need they see.

Compassion Fatigue in the General Public

A secondary definition of compassion fatigue refers to the experience of any empathetic individual who is acutely conscious of societal needs but feels helpless to solve them. People who actively engage in charity or volunteering may come to feel that they cannot commit any more energy, time, or money to the plight of others because they feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by pleas for support and that the world’s challenges are never-ending.

Evolutionary psychologists studying the development of human empathy suggest that we evolved to put our clan or family first and may struggle to extend our empathy to an entire nation. This idea is supported by research finding that people tend to be more responsive to the needs of individuals rather than of groups, or of the world as a whole. For this reason, charitable organizations have learned to focus their campaigns on how donors can help individual victims, not suffering groups.

Viewing violent news events on television or social media can also cause some people with high levels of empathy to experience symptoms similar to those of secondary trauma.

How to Treat Secondary Trauma

Hospitals, nursing and police unions, medical associations, and other professional groups have become more aware of the effects of secondary trauma and now urge those in the helping professions to follow guidelines designed to offset fatigue, like regular exercise and healthy eating, a commitment to adequate rest and regular time off, and time in therapy. Self-care techniques like mindfulness, meditation or yoga, and time with loved ones or in nature, or devoted to interests or hobbies outside of work have also been found to lessen the symptoms of compassion fatigue.

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