Life Events & Trauma

4 Min Read

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress or vicarious traumatization, is characterized by stress that results from helping those who are suffering from significant emotional distress or trauma. When caregivers focus on providing care to others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface, such as apathy and substance use.

Compassion fatigue and burnout often go hand in hand, but compassion fatigue describes a slightly different experience. Compassion fatigue while highly treatable is often less predictable. The onset of compassion fatigue can be sudden, while burnout occurs over time. While severe burnout cases may require a person to change their work environment, measures can be taken to prevent or treat compassion fatigue before a change in the work environment is required.

Compassion fatigue can be a symptom of other stressors. Because health care providers and caregivers are trained to utilize compassion and empathy when helping patients, they are particularly vulnerable to compassion stress and fatigue.

compassion fatigue

Are you suffering from compassion fatigue?

In the United States, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused confusion and frustration about how to practice proper self-care while caring for others. Caregivers on the front lines, especially health care workers, social workers, and first responders who have dedicated their lives to helping others and making the world a better place, are particularly vulnerable to compassion fatigue during this time.

To find out where you fall on the compassion satisfaction/fatigue spectrum, take the Professional Quality of Life (PROQOL) questionnaire. Although PROQOL was initially developed to measure the compassion fatigue levels of professional “helpers,” it can provide feedback about compassion fatigue, burnout, and stress levels for anyone who dedicates a significant amount of time helping others.

Signs of compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue affects every person differently, but common signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • Feeling burdened by the suffering of others
  • Blaming others for their suffering
  • Difficulty feeling empathy for others
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Loss of pleasure
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Physical and mental exhaustion
  • Feeling hopeless or powerless
  • Substance use
  • Poor self-care
  • Burnout

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, denial is one of the most detrimental symptoms of compassion fatigue. Denial can prevent individuals from accurately assessing their fatigue and stress, which prevents them from seeking help.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a pre-existing mental health condition like anxiety disorder or depression, seeking professional help can help you monitor your symptoms and take care of your mental health.

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How can compassion fatigue be prevented?

Practicing self-awareness can help you realize changes in your behavior, work, and life outside of work to prevent compassion fatigue. The following practices can also help to avoid compassion fatigue:

  • Limit your daily news consumption: It can be tempting to watch the news and scroll through social media to learn about the latest novel coronavirus statistics and the most recent number of COVID-19 cases. However, limiting your daily news consumption can allow you to recharge and focus on self-care.
  • Maintain a healthy work-life balance: With health care workers and caregivers held to exceptionally high standards during this time, it can be challenging to nearly impossible to take time off from work. If possible, maintain a healthy work-life balance by taking time off to recharge when needed.
  • Practice self-care: Regularly practicing self-care by eating a healthy diet, engaging in physical activity, and maintaining a sleep routine can help lower your risk factors for compassion fatigue. It will also improve your overall mental health.
  • Practice mindful meditation: Mindful meditation can help you ground yourself and prevent negative thoughts from taking over. Meditation can help you achieve inner balance, even if you’re struggling with stress.

How is compassion fatigue treated?

If you score high on the compassion fatigue scale, there’s hope. Like burnout and other mental health problems, compassion fatigue can affect your quality of life, and awareness is the first step to feeling better. If you’re struggling with compassion fatigue, stress, or burnout, the following resources can help:

  • Therapy: Working with a mental health professional can help you overcome negative feelings and emotions and focus on healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Self-care: Show compassion to yourself by being kind and comforting to yourself. Focus on taking care of your mental health and physical health by making time for the things you enjoy, maintaining healthy eating and sleeping patterns, and incorporating physical activity into your routine.
  • Social support: Reaching out to friends and family members can help you share your feelings and alleviate stress. If you’re hesitant to connect with friends and family members, joining a caregiver support group can allow you to express challenges related to the coronavirus disease and chronic illness.

What should you look for in a therapist?

We’re all experiencing an unprecedented situation. If you’re struggling with high levels of compassion fatigue, it can be challenging to take care of yourself and maintain a positive outlook. If possible, take things slower, find a comfortable work-life balance, and give yourself time to adapt to the new normal.

If feelings of compassion fatigue become overwhelming, consider reaching out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. WithTherapy’s unique service will provide you with mental health professional matches so that you can feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. One of the licensed and qualified therapists on the With Therapy platform will help you be kind to yourself and find support.

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