Compassion Fatigue

February 15, 2021

Compassion fatigue is commonly characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others. This “negative cost of caring” is also known as secondary traumatic stress, and it occurs when there is prolonged exposure to traumatized victims and situations.

Healthcare providers, mental health providers, firefighters/EMTs, police officers and other frontline, first responders who encounter traumatic situations on a daily basis are considered high-risk populations.

There are two types of compassion fatigue:

  • Direct Exposure
  • Secondary Exposure

Those who have direct exposure have witnessed traumatic events. Those with secondary exposure have listened to victim reports, written reports, and have had exposure to ongoing stressors of an incident, such as courtroom testimony.

Compassion fatigue has the ability to impact our overall well-being, including decision-making, job performance, health and “self-medicating,” cognitive processes, emotions and relationships. Specific symptoms include:

  • Concentration difficulties
  • Self-blame/blaming others
  • Racing, negative thought patterns
  • Poor job outlook/dread going to work
  • Anger/irritability
  • Sadness/loss of joy in once enjoyable activities
  • Guilt
  • Decreased self-esteem/self-worth
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Body aches/headaches
  • Difficulties in relationships
  • Isolation or only spending time with peers who “understand” if one works within a high-stress environment

If left untreated, chronic compassion fatigue can lead to depression, PTSD, anxiety and burnout.

How do you combat compassion fatigue? First and foremost, practice self-care. Find activities or hobbies that bring you joy. Develop physical health habits and practice meditation or mindfulness exercises that involve all of your senses. Regulate your emotions, and practice controlled breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Gratitude exercises are instrumental in overcoming compassion fatigue because they challenge negative thought patterns. Express your stressors and emotions through creative avenues, such as journaling, drawing or painting. Supportive relationships are key. Don’t delay seeking out and speaking to a mental health clinician if you begin to feel overwhelmed and if the compassion fatigue begins to affect your daily life and routines.

Call Prairie View at 800-992-6292 to learn the treatment options available to you based upon your need. If you experience a mental health crisis, call 800-362-0180 to speak with a clinician and receive help immediately.

Daniel Garlock, PsyD, LP