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What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Jun 15, 2020

Praying manIf your ears perk up when you hear the term compassion fatigue, you're probably feeling its effects—even if you can't quite put your finger on why.

Here's a look at what compassion fatigue is, how you may be affected—no matter your occupation—and most important, practical tips you can apply right now to reduce the pressure.


What is compassion fatigue?

The American Institute of Stress (AIS) defines compassion fatigue as "the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events."

Think of compassion fatigue as a low-grade feeling of exhaustion—one that erodes your emotional resilience and ability to function at your best.

When you care too much or too long, compassion fatigue can be the result. And while it's most often associated with those in professional caregiving roles (nurses, for example), it can also affect the likes of you and me.

I know this, because every person to whom I have mentioned "dealing with compassion fatigue"—from teachers to chiropractors to business owners—has verbalized some form of Yes. I need that. And I know a lot of other people who need it.

Compassion fatigue symptoms

One common symptom of compassion fatigue: sleep disruption. 

For example, if you're a business owner or manager, COVID-19 has no doubt changed your role considerably. You may have to comfort your team now in ways you're not used to. Or conduct layoffs.

All of these things take a toll. Likewise, if you're raising a family while caring for aging parents, for example, you've got the makings of compassion fatigue. 

Other compassion fatigue symptoms may include: 

  • Feeling checked out; unable to meet the needs of those around you
  • Existential frustration, bordering on despair 
  • Overreacting emotionally to little things
  • Intense anger or sadness over things outside your control 

Practical tips to combat compassion fatigue

"If physical energy is the foundation of all dimensions of energy, sleep is the foundation of physical energy." — Tony Schwartz, The Way We're Working Isn't Working

If you're feeling the effects of compassion fatigue, here are 12 practical tips to help you regain your sense of hope and resilience:

  1. Stabilize your sleep. Easier said than done, but make this a top priority. For more tips on sleep, see my earlier post with sleep expert Jeff Scheuer, Sleep and Work Performance During COVID-19
  2. Get yourself some therapy. Don't make your friends your therapist. When you're deep into compassion fatigue, you need a professional with whom you can share freely. Your friends aren't trained for this—nor is it part of the friendship contract. There are apps that let you get therapy through your phone. 
  3. Get yourself a journal. If therapy is not your thing or it's out of reach, processing your thoughts and emotions in a safe place can also be effective. And it's free.
  4. Declare a fast from the news and/or social media. I did this one day last week and couldn't believe how good it felt, how necessary. I probably need to do it much more often.
  5. Cut where you can. For example, you don't have to follow every Facebook friend. You can block everyone but your spouse and kids on Facebook Messenger. It's called taking back your energy.
  6. Get outdoors. Nature has a unique way of restoring spirits and perspective. Moreover, it is all but impossible to pout and power-walk at the same time. What's your go-to outdoor activity? 
  7. Let it out in a safe place. I once had a professor who said, "Men often express sadness as anger, and women often express anger as sadness." All-righty. Either way, it's good to get your emotions out.
  8. Get around other people. Over the weekend, some family members and I met up for coffee outdoors. One hour later, I felt completely restored. It wasn't the caffeine (I ordered tea). 
  9. Make some fun plans. The same family I met for coffee are coming to my place for dinner one night next week. Even simple plans can restore a sense of hope and optimism. 
  10. Surround yourself with low-maintenance friends. If you're experiencing compassion fatigue and especially if you're already a caregiver, you can't afford to have friendships that drain you. 
  11. Learn to set limits without guilt. If ever there were a time for unapologetic self-care, this is it. Honor your limitations. Trust that the people who are right for you will do the same.
  12. Lean on your faith. I realize this is a very personal area. But the point is, neither you nor I are "General Manager of the Universe." That alone should allow us to breathe a deep sigh of relief. 

Along those lines, I have always found comfort in this passage from Parker J. Palmer's book Let Your Life Speak. If you're feeling the effects of compassion fatigue, maybe these words will speak to you: 

“Yes, we are created in and for community, to be there, in love, for one another. But community cuts both ways: when we reach the limits of our own capacity to love, community means trusting that someone else will be available to the person in need.”

Amen. What are your favorite ways to recharge? As an example, a friend of mine has a nightly ritual of talking to her plants. This made me laugh. But it works. And for what it's worth, my plants are thriving.

Compassion fatigue vs burnout

How do you distinguish between compassion fatigue and burnout? According to AIS, while the two are different, they can also overlap. 

Compassion fatigue comes on more rapidly. It may involve having witnessed trauma, directly or indirectly. It also goes away more rapidly, with remedies like the ones described above.

Burnout has less to do with traumatic events and more to do with work overload and "institutional stress" (read: company culture; I can help). 

Both compassion fatigue and burnout deserve to be acknowledged, dealt with, and ultimately prevented. If you lead others, do what it takes to model appropriate self-care and give your team the tools to do the same. I live and breathe this subject. If I can make it easier for you and/or your team, please get in touch



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