Compassion Fatigue May Be the Real Cause of Your Mental and Physical Exhaustion

Here's your complete guide to compassion fatigue, including how it differs from burnout and how to avoid it.

Compassion Fatigue
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If you've been feeling "meh" and have been helping someone more than Sookie helps Lorelei, Jules helps Rue, or Gary helps literally everyone else on A Million Little Things, you might have compassion fatigue.

At its most distilled, compassion fatigue is chronic exhaustion of the mind or body that results from helping people who have experienced trauma. The COVID-19 pandemic has helped raise awareness of how common compassion fatigue is among health care providers, but it can actually affect people in any number of fields.

Ahead, the complete down-low on the concern. Read on for a more thorough compassion fatigue definition, common signs of the issue, and what you can do to address and prevent it.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Put simply, compassion fatigue is a term for mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion resulting from helping others. This isn't referring to performing tasks along the lines of helping a friend move into their new apartment or copy-editing their CV, according to mental health expert Arin N. Reeves, J.D., Ph.D., author of In Charge. "Compassion fatigue is specifically around helping people experiencing or trying to heal from a trauma," she says. The partner of a person who was recently attacked, the nurse who works primarily with sexual assault survivors, and a daughter who lives with their parent who recently watched their partner die could all end up with compassion fatigue, for instance.

Caring for someone and showing compassion are expressions of love and shouldn't be viewed as a bad thing, says burnout expert Elizabeth Bishop, founder of the Conscious Service Approach, which provides mental health tools for those who care-give and serve others. The problem is that many workplaces that require a high amount of compassion lack infrastructures that support their employees, she says. In theory, that could look like three- or four-day work weeks, free mental health support, peer support groups, and fair pay.

"Even the most compassionate people in this world cannot operate from a place of compassion without having time to reset and take care of themselves without the responsibility of someone else's welfare," says Bishop.

Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout

Both compassion fatigue and burnout are forms of deep exhaustion, but the two are not synonymous, says wellness and life coach Stephanie Bolster McCannon, author of BolsterUp!: The Ultimate Guide To Becoming a Happy Healthy Human. While compassion fatigue is exhaustion caused by compassion, burnout refers to the exhaustion caused specifically by constantly being overextended — usually, swamped at work. Burnout encompasses exhaustion from all kinds of jobs, and isn't necessarily resulting from compassion. (

Compassion fatigue does have burnout as one of its common symptoms, says Reeves. "But not everyone who has compassion fatigue feels burned out," she says.

Who Is at Risk for Compassion Fatigue?

"Anyone who has a wide depth and breadth of the care-taking responsibilities, and has had to do these responsibilities for a long time, has an increased risk for compassion fatigue," meaning it most often happens to people who help others deal with trauma as part of their job, says Reeves.

Doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, and therapists, for example, are commonly affected, says Reeves. "However, any caring person who is bearing witness to the suffering of others can experience compassion fatigue," according to Bolster McCannon. Volunteers and people who have made taking care of a loved one their full- or part-time job can experience compassion fatigue, she says.

What Are the Signs of Compassion Fatigue?

"The symptoms of compassion fatigue often resemble the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)," says Reeves. Given the fact that compassion fatigue is rooted in experiencing second-hand trauma (repeatedly) while caring for others who experienced or are experiencing the trauma directly, this shouldn't come as a surprise.

These effects of compassion fatigue are varied, and can be emotional, physical, or cognitive, she says. They include:

  • mood swings
  • anxiety and depression
  • social detachment
  • insomnia
  • appetite fluctuations
  • digestive woes
  • headaches
  • generalized fatigue
  • inability to focus
  • memory disturbances
  • reliance on medication
  • addictive behaviors

Despite common belief, compassion fatigue doesn't mean that you can no longer feel compassion, says Reeves. "People with compassion fatigue can usually still feel compassion," she says. However, they may lose the energy, ability, or interest to act on that compassion. (

How to Determine If You Have Compassion Fatigue

A little self-reflection can help you deduce whether or not you have compassion fatigue. "There's a widely-used tool that's appropriately called the Compassion Fatigue and Satisfaction Self-Test for Helpers (CFS) that can be found online and is a good starting point for figuring out if you have compassion fatigue," says Bolster McCannon. The questionnaire has 66 questions, and shouldn't take you more than five minutes total to fill out.

Regardless of what your CFS answers suggest, if your gut instinct says that you have compassion fatigue, you should check in with a health care provider. "Any time there's any question about one's mental health it is important to speak with a qualified medical professional," says Bolster McCannon.

How You Can Address Compassion Fatigue

Good news: Compassion fatigue is something you can recover from completely with the right treatment plan from a health care professional.

The first step, according to Bolster McCannon, is to acknowledge exactly what your job requires of you. "You need to become aware of your current experiences and understand the impact of chronic stress and how working with traumatized people has taken its toll on your emotional, mental, and physical state," she says.

Next, take space from the work, if you can, suggests psychotherapist Courtney Glashow, L.C.S.W., founder of Anchor Therapy LLC. "That does not mean simply taking a day off," she says. That means phoning a friend or sibling and asking them to take over the emotional labor of caring for your mutual pal or parent for a week or two, or taking a two-week cruise, for instance.

But escaping your responsibilities for a bit isn't adequate. You also need to implement self-care habits into your routine that will prevent compassion fatigue from taking root again, says Bolster McCannon. "No, this is not just an indulgence you take part in when time allows," she says. "You need to deliberately alter your lifestyle towards healing." General "healthy living" guidelines on nutrition, getting exercise, meditation, mindfulness, spending time outside, getting quality sleep, and adequately are very helpful, says Reeves.

That said, you actually don't need to completely alter your life. "Overhauling your life is neither necessary nor productive," says Reeves. "You simply need to get a daily dose of thinking, breathing nourishment, and rest."

The Takeaway

Especially common among people in helping professions, compassion fatigue is marked by a number of disorientating symptoms. Luckily, there are ways to both treat and prevent compassion fatigue. So, if you think you're at risk for compassion fatigue or are currently experiencing it, talk to your employer, health care provider, and support network to come up with a solution.

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