Compassion Fatigue: Definition, Symptoms, And Examples

What Is Compassion Fatigue? Find Out How It May Be Affecting You

February 3, 2021 Updated April 27, 2021

compassion-fatigue (1)
Solskin/Getty Images

As a mom, you’re all too familiar with being directly responsible for the well-being of another human. And even if you’ve always known you wanted to be a parent and couldn’t wait for that day to come, you probably found out quickly that there are days when you just run on — or close to — empty. But there are other situations when you don’t exactly choose to be a caregiver. This could happen after a parent or other loved one becomes seriously ill or has mobility issues that require a significant amount of assistance.

And while some people manage to accept what happens and draw clear, healthy boundaries for themselves, others aren’t as fortunate. They may experience a type of stress that comes from helping or wanting to help someone traumatized, sick, or under any other sort of distress. There’s a term for this feeling: “compassion fatigue.” 

RELATEDCan Stress Make You Sick? The Dozens Of Silent Ways Your Body Is Affected By Stress

Sound familiar? Well, here’s what you need to know about its definition and symptoms, as well as some examples of it in action.

Compassion Fatigue Definition

Traditionally, the secondary stress reaction of compassion fatigue was primarily seen in doctors, nurses, and others who worked directly with patients in the healthcare sector. But for many reasons, that has changed. First of all, a lot of people are members of the “sandwich generation,” responsible for taking care of their kids as well as their aging parents (or other family members). While that’s not an entirely new concept, it is becoming increasingly common as people live longer lives.

Aside from that, we’re all inundated with graphic images of people suffering, in a way that previous generations weren’t, thanks to technological advancements like TV, the internet, and smartphones. This can all lead to a specific type of fatigue or exhaustion where you feel compelled to help other people in need and feel stressed when you’re unable to make that happen.

Compassion Fatigue Vs. Empathy Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is sometimes also referred to as “empathy fatigue.” However, some people — like Dr. Mark Stebnicki, a professor in the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation at East Carolina University — see them as two separate issues (and different from burnout). “Empathy fatigue results from a state of psychological, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual and occupational exhaustion that occurs as the counselor’s own wounds are continually revisited by their clients’ life stories of chronic illness, disability, trauma, grief, and loss,” he said in an interview with Counseling Today.

Compassion Fatigue Vs. Burnout

While compassion fatigue is sometimes used interchangeably with “burnout,” they are two different concepts — but ones that can coexist. The American Institute of Stress defines compassion fatigue as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.” Burnout, on the other hand, is a “cumulative process marked by emotional exhaustion and withdrawal associated with increased workload and institutional stress.” And while compassion fatigue can result from a cumulative amount of trauma, burnout is not related to trauma.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue can come with a wide variety of sometimes-debilitating symptoms, affecting a person’s body, brain, and emotions. Some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Nervous system arousal (sleep disturbance)
  • Emotional intensity increases
  • Cognitive ability decreases
  • Behavior and judgment impaired
  • Isolation and loss of morale
  • Depression and PTSD
  • Loss of self-worth and emotional modulation
  • Identity, worldview, and spirituality impacted
  • Beliefs and psychological needs-safety, trust, esteem, intimacy, and control
  • Loss of hope and meaning; existential despair
  • Anger toward perpetrators or causal events

Some other signs and examples of compassion fatigue in action may include:

  • Feeling burdened by the suffering of others
  • Blaming others for their suffering
  • Loss of pleasure in life
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Bottling up your emotions
  • Frequent complaining about your work or your life
  • Overeating
  • Excessive use of drugs or alcohol
  • Poor self-care
  • Beginning to receive a lot of complaints about your work or attitude
  • Denial

Compassion Fatigue Test

One of the other signs of compassion fatigue is denying that you’re experiencing compassion fatigue. One way to help you figure that out is by taking the Professional Quality of Life (PROQOL) questionnaire. In addition to the original in English, the measure has been translated into 26 other languages. Developed by Dr. Beth Hudnall Stamm in 2009, the PROQOL can help people understand where they fall on the compassion satisfaction/fatigue continuum.

Ideally, you want your score to be on the lower side. But if it ends up being high, it’s not a hopeless situation. Being aware of your compassion fatigue is the first thing that needs to happen for someone to take the steps necessary to prioritize their own self-care.

How do you fix compassion fatigue?

If you find you are constantly struggling with compassion fatigue, there are a few ways to prevent it.

  • Recognize what compassion fatigue is. Keep in mind there’s a difference between this and burnout. The first step is being able to identify it.
  • Journal. It’s important to give your emotions an outlet. Writing is a great way to walk through your feelings and avoid emotional build-up.
  • Take care of yourself. Sometimes this means grabbing some frozen yogurt, but it also looks like exercise, therapy, getting enough sleep, and eating right.

Quotes About Fatigue

Being a caretaker requires selflessness and kindness. However, it’s important to make sure that you’re OK too. Burnout is real, and although having compassion is a beautiful thing, remember to take care of yourself too. For a reminder, check out these quotes about fatigue below.

“Fatigue makes fools of us all. It robs us of our skills, our judgment, and blinds us to creative solutions.” — Harvey Mackay
“Fatigue, discomfort, discouragement are merely symptoms of effort.” — Morgan Freeman
“The first virtue in a soldier is endurance of fatigue; courage is only the second virtue.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
“The strongest have their moments of fatigue.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
“Our fatigue is often caused, not by work, but by worry, frustration, and resentment.” — Dale Carnegie
“Fatigue is the best pillow.” — Benjamin Franklin