Are You Suffering From Compassion Fatigue? What Is It & How Can You Recover?

By Krista


Last Updated: August 12, 2022

Compassion fatigue is a real thing. It’s the unfortunate cost of caring for others at the expense of your own physical and emotional exhaustion.

In particular, healthcare workers or those that care for their loved ones at home can be prone to this type of fatigue. Often used simultaneously with the “cost of caring,” COVID brought this term to the forefront. Many healthcare workers and home workers were going around the clock. While we knew burnout was a problem, compassion fatigue is actually in a different ballpark.

So, what is compassion fatigue? Are you experiencing this? How do you know? Let’s take a look.



Is Compassion Fatigue the Same as Burnout?

Alright, so compassion fatigue can be categorized as a “type of burnout.” But for the sake of explanation, let’s separate the two.

So, burnout is when a person reaches general overall exhaustion, leading to a lack of motivation and interest in their work.

Compassion fatigue, in comparison, is sometimes called “vicarious trauma.” It involves the negative emotions a person may feel from helping others.

And it sucks. I’m just going to say it. It sucks for a variety of reasons. For example, most of these individuals do care and don’t want to experience these negative emotions. In fact, many of them got into their line of work to help people. But it can, undeniably, be exhausting. Day after day, you’re empathizing. You’re giving. It’s a lot.

On top of this, compassion fatigue doesn’t necessarily come on slowly (unlike burnout which tends to be gradual). Rather, it hits suddenly, usually when experiencing a particularly traumatic scenario.


What is an Example of Compassion Fatigue?

If you work in healthcare or even at a retirement home, you may come face-to-face with trauma on a daily basis. This may lead to feelings of extreme tiredness and even desperation. And these are definite signs you might be experiencing compassion fatigue.

Other symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Drastic mood shifts
  • Becoming more cynical
  • Detaching from patients or clients
  • Withdrawing from social connections
  • Experiencing anxiety or depression
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Digestive issues

Related Article: 70 Highly Inspiring Motivational Quotes to Start Your Week Strong



What Are the 5 Stages of Compassion Fatigue?

The symptoms above coincide with the different stages of compassion fatigue. These five stages include:

1. Zealot Phase

This is where everything is great. You love helping people, and you’re able to keep a good balance in your personal and professional life.

2. Irritability Phase

This is where your passion may begin to dwindle. You might find yourself avoiding certain shifts due to certain patients or cutting corners. You may also begin to notice your self-care fall curbside around this time.

3. Withdrawal

Your passion is a thing of the past. Clients merge into one another, and it might all become rather blurry. You find yourself getting tired and annoyed constantly, you begin to complain more and more about your life (professionally and personally).

You may also begin to neglect social connections and, again, yourself.

4. Zombie Phase

This is where you’re going through the motions, but not feeling a whole lot. You’ve almost become dissociated from your thoughts and feelings. You don’t feel you have a purpose. The previous meaning of your role is long gone (or it feels that way!).

5. Victimization vs Renewal

Either you come back and begin seeing the positives of life and work. Or you might leave the profession and pursue other passions that aren’t as emotionally taxing. 



How Do You Fix Compassion Fatigue?

Maybe you’ve self-diagnosed. You’re experiencing compassion fatigue. Now, what? 

Here are a few ways to cope:

  • Make sure you always put self-care first.
  • Take note of your compassion and fatigue levels, especially when you notice their decline.
  • Seek out support, such as a professional therapist.
  • Take time for yourself (this is so crucial to recharge!).
  • Aim to have at least one meaningful conversation each day.
  • Identify what’s important to you in life.
  • Avoid blaming others. Take responsibility.
  • Journal. Write out your feelings! This prevents them from becoming pent-up.
  • Find and use healthy stress coping strategies, such as exercise, meditation, deep breathing, socialization, and more.
  • Spend time performing your hobbies and activities you enjoy outside of work.

Related Article: Emotional Resilience: How to Start Building Your Ability to Adapt



Remember… You Have to Come First!

As soon as you notice any kind of compassion fatigue, it might be best to take a leave or a vacation. Alternatively, plan accordingly. Find someone to cover your shift or aid your loved one while you take much-deserved breaks. This is completely okay.

As Activist Mary Davis has said, “We can’t heal the world today but we can begin with a voice of compassion, a heart of love, an act of kindness.”

Make sure you extend this to yourself as well. You should come first, before anything else.

Read Next: How to Master the Fine Art of Putting Yourself First While Staying Compassionate

Photo by Karolina Grabowska


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