Compassion fatigue, sometimes known as second-hand shock or secondary stress reaction, is a condition that occurs when attempting to help individuals who have gone through a traumatic event or are dealing with emotional issues.

Compassion fatigue usually impacts individuals in social care, healthcare, or other professions that involve caring for others. It can potentially detrimentally affect an individual’s mental well-being – or in severe cases, physical health – which can also impact their ability to perform their duties. Learning about compassion fatigue, how it presents itself, and the treatment options available can help you understand this condition and its impact on people.

In this article, we’re going to investigate what compassion fatigue is, what causes it, the main symptoms of this condition, and the various treatments available.

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What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a condition that stems from long-term exposure to individuals who are suffering from the aftermath of a particularly traumatic event. It’s particularly prevalent in people who work with victims of severe trauma, such as the victims of assault or disaster survivors. This includes healthcare providers, journalists, social care workers, psychologists, and family members of individuals who have experienced significant trauma.

Compassion fatigue might emerge from working on a particularly troubling case, or it might result from long-term exposure to people who have suffered from traumatic experiences.

What is the primary cause of compassion fatigue?

Two root causes of compassion fatigue are found in most people suffering from this condition – burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Burnout is a type of work-related stress that results from physical or emotional exhaustion due to your work. Secondary traumatic stress is an emotionally charged response to hearing about an individual who has experienced trauma through first-hand accounts.

Working in roles that require you to interact with people who have suffered significant trauma usually requires a great deal of empathy to understand their perspective. However, this approach also means you absorb some of the emotional energy and trauma that the person who experienced the trauma feels. This creates a platform for secondary traumatic stress and burnout to develop.

There’s another aspect that amplifies the issue, though, as those who work in roles that deal with people who have experienced trauma do so for compassion satisfaction. This is the positive feeling you get when positively helping others. Individuals who work with people experiencing trauma strive to earn compassion satisfaction, pushing harder to help those in need. If they try too hard or for too long, then they are at risk of developing compassion fatigue.

What does compassion fatigue look like?

Compassion fatigue can manifest itself in a few different ways. Still, one of the defining characteristics of this condition is emotional numbness toward situations that would typically elicit an emotional response. At the stage where someone starts displaying signs of compassion fatigue, it’s usually a result of overexposure to the trauma of others. This overexposure makes it difficult – or at times, impossible – to connect emotionally with patients and their work.

Although emotional numbness is a defining feature of compassion fatigue, there are other common symptoms to look out for. These include:

  • Loss of concentration and issues with decision-making
  • Erratic emotions, mood swings, and bouts of anger
  • A sense of hopelessness
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Self-isolation and not wanting to be social
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach issues
  • Dependence on alcohol or drugs

What is the impact of compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue can potentially create a substantial negative impact on those suffering from the condition. The symptoms are often difficult to manage effectively and, in many cases, can become debilitating to the point where the quality of life dramatically drops. It also increases the chances of other issues, such as mental health conditions, emerging. This includes depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Compassion fatigue can also affect a person’s relationships. This is due to the erratic mood swings and other negative emotions that can make it hard for people to connect or be around the person dealing with compassion fatigue. These problems extend into a person’s work life and relationships, so if they’re in a role that focuses on caring for others, they will also be affected by things.

Different ways to treat compassion fatigue

There are a variety of different approaches to treating and managing compassion fatigue. Research from the American Academy of Family Physicians outlines several interventions and treatments for compassion fatigue, including:

Planning a routine for self-care

Taking care of yourself is a helpful way to feel better about things and potentially overcome compassion fatigue. Creating a regimen for self-care that includes eating healthy food, exercising, and maintaining a good sleep schedule can treat compassion fatigue and many other mental health conditions.

In some cases, people dealing with compassion fatigue might choose to take some time away from work to work on themselves and separate their problems from their job. This isn’t essential, though, as self-care interventions can be implemented while working.

Performing mindfulness techniques

Mindfulness is a way of interacting with the present moment, which can help you feel the pressure of depression or anxiety. The risk of burnout and secondary traumatic stress is greatly lessened by mitigating these issues.

Mindfulness can take many forms, but mindfulness techniques are an excellent way to implement them into your life. These include things like meditation or breathing exercises to let you focus on the present moment.

Find hobbies that are outside of work

Compassion fatigue is typically associated with work, so spending time enjoying activities outside of work can help with the symptoms of compassion fatigue. Whether you’re an avid camper or enjoy more leisurely pursuits like knitwork or reading, taking the time to enjoy hobbies that aren’t tied to your work can help refocus your mind away from the stressors of work.

Having different hobbies and interests is important to combating compassion fatigue as it highlights that there’s more to life than working. You can find lots of enjoyment and satisfaction by enjoying your hobbies rather than focusing on your job. You can also pick up new hobbies, join social clubs or reignite a passion you once enjoyed.

Seek help from a therapist

Speaking with a trained therapist is another approach to battling compassion fatigue, as it creates a platform for self-discovery and reflection. The right therapist can work with you to identify problems in your thinking, offer you a new perspective on your emotions and work life, as well as help work with you overcome any trauma you’ve dealt with. They can also provide appropriate coping mechanisms so that you can effectively navigate your emotions and difficult situations.

What are professionals most likely to deal with compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a wide-reaching condition that can impact several professions, although it’s particularly prevalent in professions that help others. Therapists are an excellent example of this, as they spend their working life helping people overcome trauma. The people they work with daily, and their issues, can bleed into their personal lives all too easily, sparking compassion fatigue.

The healthcare industry is another area that’s susceptible to compassion fatigue. Nurses, for example, exhibit a great deal of compassion and empathy in their line of work. This opens the door for compassion fatigue to manifest alongside the demanding hours and stressful work environment.

Outside of the healthcare industry, lawyers also experience compassion fatigue in their line of work due to the cases they get involved in. Whether dealing with a particularly grizzly crime or working closely with clients who have experienced severe trauma, lawyers are prone to compassion fatigue.

How to prevent compassion fatigue

Prevention is always better than cure, which is why it’s important to understand compassion fatigue so that you can do things to avoid it. The first steps to take with this involve focusing on self-awareness and being aware of any behavioral or mood changes in your life. If your workplace has the facilities, mentorships or supervisors can also provide guidance and help you overcome any challenges associated with compassion fatigue. There are many other approaches to preventing compassion fatigue, such as:

  • Lowering your working hours
  • Changing shift patterns, so they’re less stressful
  • Taking regular holidays and time off from work
  • Meditation and practicing mindfulness
  • Journaling your thoughts and emotions
  • Speaking with a therapist to work through issues related to your job
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes a good diet and exercise