What Is Compassion Fatigue?

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Author Name: Lucas Cook
Date: Tuesday January 23, 2024

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Compassion fatigue is an ailment you’ve probably experienced but never had a term for. Sometimes, it’s challenging to discern how you feel after an interaction or event. The conversations or tasks may have been demanding though rewarding, providing conflicting feelings. Is it tiredness or stress? Is it desperate relief or euphoria? 

To correctly identify what compassion fatigue is, you will have to answer these questions to learn more about how your mind and body react to social exertion. Learn how to recover from it gracefully.

two people holding hands in the street

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue — also called vicarious trauma — occurs after helping others through an emotionally taxing, typically traumatic experience. Some even refer to it as empathy overload. The impacts and feelings of helping others manifest emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physiologically. This is a unique condition others might be more prone to than others for specific reasons. It doesn’t happen every time you perform a small act of kindness. 

For example, counselors and therapists bear the burdens of countless stories and struggles while trying to provide solutions for healing and alleviate stressors. After a long week, they may feel extreme waves of tiredness, complacency and even depression. Other professions and lifestyles more susceptible to compassion fatigue include but are not limited to:

  • Emergency responders, like firefighters or EMS workers
  • Social workers 
  • People working with homeless individuals or displaced persons
  • Crisis assistance, such as natural disaster aid
  • Volunteer staff, like hunger or poverty relief staff
  • Teachers and education-based employees
  • Medical staff, including elderly or hospice carers
  • Law enforcement and lawyers
  • Religious officials

This fatigue is a different sensation from isolated feelings of burnout because it results in trauma. Burnout strictly references occupational stress or personal lack of fulfillment, which is often temporary. This being said, burnout is a component of compassion fatigue alongside secondary traumatic stress.

Can People Outside of These Professions Experience It?

Yes. Compassion fatigue may impact anyone, though it is most prominent in these professional circles. Some people feel empathy more prominently than others, making the struggles of loved ones and even the world at large erode people into compassion fatigue. 

For example, compassion fatigue symptoms might motivate someone toward activism to support others. Adversely, a compassionate individual who cannot help others due to their circumstances may experience this fatigue out of helplessness.

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What Are the Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue?

The side effects of acute or extended compassion fatigue come in varying degrees. Some symptoms might be confused for other mental health or physical struggles, such as anxiety or respiratory concerns. Here are some physical and emotional byproducts.

PhysicalEmotional and Mental
Trouble sleeping
Muscle tension
Gastrointestinal distress
Appetite changes
Lower immune system
Shorter attention span
Reduced concentration
Fluctuations in weight
Irritability or mood swings
Emotional numbness
Low self-esteem
Loss of purpose
Relationship strain and detachment
Pessimism and nihilism
Compassion fade

Another physical and emotional symptom you could experience is addiction. Leaning toward alcohol, drugs and gambling are frequent yet ephemeral sources of misconstrued relief. Others might lean into overworking themselves or retail therapy to provide a similarly distracted haze during compassion fatigue.

Is This Even a Real Concern?

The phrase “compassion fatigue” may sound new age, but it is a valid, prevalent and underrecognized concern, primarily in stressful workplaces or restrictive circumstances. Consider how marginalized communities may fall into this headspace differently than a first responder.

In a study of medical staff, teachers, social workers, psychotherapists, pastors and more, there were variances in compression fatigue density. However, it was still present in all surveyed profession groups, with a correlation of those with high self-reported fatigue aligning with severe self-criticism tendencies.

After experiencing copious amounts of trauma, people may experience psychic numbing, which makes them temporarily or permanently dismissive of mounting distress. Though this sounds like a welcome reprieve for people experiencing compassion fatigue, it is a slippery slope to diminishing emotional capacity.

How Can You Treat Compassion Fatigue?

There are solutions for dissolving the debilitating feelings compassion fatigue brings. Short- and long-term solutions in professional and at-home settings exist for you to experiment with.

Grounding Exercises with Gratitude

To combat feelings of hopelessness and despair, bring yourself back to reality. You can do this by repeating affirmations, journaling or other methods. No matter what you choose, practice gratitude. This works because it reminds you of everything going right and optimistically in the world. This is desperately needed, especially when your worldview becomes constricted by your constant exposure to traumatic stimuli. 

Reframe your image of the world and its people by recognizing the incredible individuals in your life, what joy they bring to you and others, and celebrate the monumental achievements the human race has accomplished. Fewer people die at young ages, species have been brought back from endangerment and we have invented things beyond human imagination. Not everything is bleak all the time.

Wellness and Self-Care

When you’re caught up in an emotional barrage, it’s easy to forget about your basic needs and focus on what makes you feel good and happy. Consider your body’s essential needs first, like hydration, healthful foods, exercise and hygiene. Then, consider mindfulness and other self-care measures such as pursuing your hobbies, meditating or making time for loved ones.


A trauma therapist would be ideal for those listening to and seeing harrowing events constantly. Unpacking how these narratives make you feel is best guided by an experienced professional. 

stressed person on a couch

Replace Self-Medicating Behaviors

As previously mentioned, addictive tendencies may arise during a bout. This is normal and you can overcome it by replacing a bad habit with a positive, healing one. For example, transform drinking alcohol every evening into non-alcoholic bubbly or flavored sparkling water. Instead of doomscrolling because of a social media or internet addiction, pick up a book whenever you want to pick up your phone. It’s a healthier form of escapism that engages your brain more profoundly.

Why Is Compassion Fatigue Important to Acknowledge

This shared trauma is becoming more prevalent. Professionals are raising awareness of compassion fatigue as a legitimate concern. People have a higher likelihood of experiencing mental health concerns in the modern era, especially as more individuals enter workforces with increased transparency, personability and vulnerability. 

Compassion fatigue may arise, primarily as a shared understanding of trauma with events like the COVID-19 pandemic enlightens the planet about what happens when undergoing an unprecedented, strenuous experience together. Increasing visibility on compassion fatigue will expedite recovery for many currently shouldering moral stress.

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