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Compassion Fatigue

Signs That Helping Others Is Hurting You

The importance of spotting compassion fatigue symptoms early.

Key points

  • The global pandemic has taken a mental toll on health care workers, parents, and teachers.
  • Compassion fatigue can lead to a number of negative outcomes if it goes untreated.
  • Recognizing the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout is the first step toward gaining resiliency.
 Vladimir Fedotov/Unsplash
The worldwide pandemic has also shown us the great lengths many will go through to aid those who are suffering.
Source: Vladimir Fedotov/Unsplash

With over 3 million deaths globally, nearly every person has been impacted by COVID-19 in some way. The past year has been a whirlwind of understaffed hospitals, ill-equipped nursing homes, rising hate crimes, overbooked therapists, and economic devastation, to list a few.

However, the worldwide pandemic has also shown us the great lengths many will go through to aid those suffering. For example, Trisha Roberts, a 26-year-old nurse from the United Kingdom, was said to go above and beyond to aid her patients. Her sister, Tammy Lou, reported, “She often told us with tear-filled eyes that she held the hands of these who unfortunately succumbed to the COVID virus and was often the last person they saw.” Trisha died in February 2021 after “struggling with her mental health and the pressures of the pandemic.”

Unfortunately, Trisha’s story is not unique. Many health care workers have been exposed to the suffering of others at the expense of their own well-being. Psychologists have used the term compassion fatigue to describe the negative effects of continuously aiding the suffering.

When the exposure to suffering is prolonged, with a lack of relief from the burden of responsibility, one’s ability to care can be severely impacted. As researchers Figley and Figley state,

This constant exposure and repeated empathic engagement leave behind harmful cumulative emotional energy that includes self-doubt about one’s competence as a practitioner, and other doubts and stress reactions. If left unchecked, this cumulative emotional pain and negative energy can wreak havoc with the affected person, be they client or caregiver (p. 392).

Signs of compassion fatigue

Those who frequently care for the afflicted are at risk of compassion fatigue. It’s not a personal failing or psychological weakness. It is simply “a call for action by leadership and workers, and a natural consequence of providing care for traumatized individuals (p. 396).” Being attuned to the symptoms of compassion fatigue is the first step to addressing it.

Signs to look for include:

  • Stress
  • Overactive startle response
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance of situations
  • Traumatic memories
  • Reduced feelings of empathy
  • Irritability

These symptoms may be compounded if there are other life demands in addition to the exposure to suffering, such as moving, going through a divorce, changing jobs, etc.

Unfortunately, compassion fatigue preys upon the most compassionate among us. Those with active empathic responses to suffering are at higher risk than those with lower empathy. While empathic and attentive care is key to positive patient outcomes, sharing the emotional burden of clients long-term is costly. When caregivers engage in empathy, they recognize and often mirror the distressed client’s experience. Over time, this can produce a numbing effect and lead to compassion stress.

Aditya Romansa/Unsplash
If we ignore the small stresses as they come, then our capacity to help others will deteriorate as distress builds.
Source: Aditya Romansa/Unsplash

Long-term effects of compassion fatigue

Allowing symptoms of compassion fatigue to go unchecked can lead to several problems, such as anxiety, headaches, post-traumatic stress disorder, heartburn, withdrawal, and depression. It can also lead to greater errors, creating safety risks for those in need. Being attentive to our own physical and mental well-being is crucial for long-term health. Let’s be mindful of our thoughts, feelings, physiological changes, and any emotions we may be feeling. We can take time to focus on breathing and slow down our breathing rate.

We are all susceptible to the burnout, empathic distress, and secondary trauma that can accompany caring for those who are suffering. There is no shame in experiencing compassion fatigue. If we ignore the small stresses as they come and deny ourselves healthy emotional processing, then our capacity to help others will deteriorate as distress builds.

I have no doubt that Trisha will be remembered for her immense compassion. Consider the toll the pandemic has placed, not just on the suffering but also on health care workers. Even the helpers need help occasionally, and that’s OK. These signs will indicate when we’re on an unsustainable track and allow us to take a step back and evaluate.

Part 2 of this series will focus on how to find tools that can help build resilience to compassion fatigue.

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