What Is Compassion Fatigue?

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Helen Brown, Ph.D. 09-09-2021

Compassion fatigue is a form of stress or tension that arises from frequent contact with traumatized people, where we become preoccupied with the suffering or pain of others (Hunsaker, Chen, Maughan, & Heaston, 2015).

Compassion fatigue is a serious problem that can undermine a person’s mental and physical health and negatively affect their relationships and ability to care for others (Cocker & Joss, 2016).

Compassion fatigue can show itself in a range of symptoms and behaviors, such as:

  • Diminished ability or interest to care for others
  • Preoccupation with people you help
  • Mental and/or physical exhaustion
  • Anger and irritability
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Sleep problems
  • Being easily startled
  • Hopelessness about helping work
  • Flashbacks
  • Hypervigilance
  • Avoidance of certain activities, situations, or people you help
  • Feeling like a failure as a helper
  • Drops in productivity
  • Emotional numbness
  • Trouble separating personal and professional life
  • A decreased capacity to experience sympathy and empathy
  • Dysfunctional coping behaviors, e.g., misusing alcohol or drugs
  • Taking more time off work
  • Reduced decision-making ability
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Decreased satisfaction or enjoyment with work (Cocker & Joss, 2016; Clay, 2020; Stamm, 2010)

What Are the First Signs of Fatigue? Causes & Treatment

Compassion fatigue vs empathy fatigue

The terms compassion fatigue and empathy fatigue are occasionally used interchangeably. But this can confuse the issue slightly, as some models of compassion fatigue don’t agree on the role of empathy in the development of compassion fatigue.

According to Figley (2002a), without the ability to empathize, there is little room for compassion fatigue, because empathy is essential to helping work and experiencing the strains of caring. Empathic concern is our impetus to help those people that are suffering, for example, by providing our services as a therapist (Figley, 2002a).

Our empathic response toward clients and patients is how we try to remedy a client’s suffering and can lead us to share in their emotional responses. “Compassion stress” is the consequence of empathic responding and represents the ongoing desire to reduce the suffering of the client or patient (Figley, 2002a).

If compassion stress is severe and/or compounded by other life stresses, it can lead to compassion fatigue (Figley, 2002a), which can be emotionally overwhelming and make it more difficult to experience empathy (Clay, 2020).

However, a more recent model of compassion fatigue challenges the idea that it is empathy that makes us vulnerable to compassion fatigue (Coetzee & Laschinger, 2017). Instead, Coetzee and Laschinger (2017) suggest a lack of resources, the person’s response to the distress, and inadequate positive feedback make us susceptible to compassion fatigue. We’ll get into these models in more detail a little further on.

What Causes Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion Fatigue CausesThere are two components to compassion fatigue: secondary traumatic stress and burnout.

When our job is to help others who are in distress or traumatized, we must adopt the perspective of the person who is suffering to empathize with them (Figley, 2002a).

By doing this, we are necessarily exposed to the emotional energy and trauma of the particular patient we are working with, which can lead to secondary traumatic stress (Figley, 2002b; Stamm, 2012).

Over time, we can also experience burnout and feel as though our helping work is not having a positive impact ( Stamm, 2012).

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