So often we talk about the importance of being compassionate to others as well as showing self-compassion to ourselves. It is great to have these characteristics! Having compassion makes for a healthy mind as well as healthy relationships with others. But what happens when we become exhausted by how much compassion we are giving? What is compassion fatigue, and how do we go about dealing with it?
Understanding Compassion Fatigue
By definition, compassion fatigue is, “The physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.” When we over-empathize with someone or something, after a while we become drained. Since we are more likely to invest in something we connect with emotionally, it can be difficult to take a step back and consider our own feelings and mental state. Although it may seem like something that only affects the mind, the fatigue from compassion can manifest physically, psychologically, emotionally, and even behaviorally. Here are a few symptoms of compassion fatigue as listed by Psychology Today:
- Physical: unusual sleeping patterns, weakness or tiredness, lack of energy, frequently falling ill, and changing eating habits.
- Psychological and emotional: feeling sad, empty, lonely, numb, agitated, despair, stuck, or a loss of control.
- Behavioral: withdrawal, lack of connection/avoiding connection, rejecting others, or feeling rejected.
If you believe you are experiencing compassion fatigue, it is a good idea to find out what is causing it and what stage you may be in.
Causes and Stages
As mentioned before, compassion fatigue typically comes from overexerting yourself when it comes to providing support and care to those who are suffering. Another reason could be that you feel helpless or like you lack control of the situation at hand. Since the events that lead to this need for compassion are typically intense, more empathy is needed more often.
Some aspects are more likely to lead to compassion fatigue. If you have a history of trauma or troubles with coping skills, you may be more susceptible to becoming fatigued. Not having worked through your own issues or relating closely to someone else’s could leave you struggling to maintain your compassion. Another issue involves your self-care and social support. If you are not taking care of yourself and don’t have the support it takes to handle other people’s problems, it can feel next to impossible to stay engaged while helping those in need.
Experiencing someone’s trauma secondhand for long periods of time, according to Verywell Mind, means that fatigue tends to happen gradually rather than all at once. Charles Figley, a professor of psychology, family therapy, psychoneuroimmunology family studies, social work, traumatology, and mental health, has created a 4-stage model that explains the process of compassion fatigue.
- Step one, called empathetic ability, involves recognizing other people’s pain and addressing it with empathetic concern.
- Next is empathetic response. This stage is where the compassionate individual decides to actively understand the person in pain and search for ways to help.
- Third is compassion stress. This stage is where some stress may seep in as they help individuals.
- Lastly is compassion fatigue which, as mentioned before, is where the person may be having trouble managing someone else’s traumas and struggles as well as their own.
Preventing and Overcoming Compassion Fatigue
Knowing how to overcome and prevent compassion fatigue is vital for those who want to help others but also maintain their inner peace. It goes without saying that if you are suffering from severe compassion fatigue or any other serious stressor, please do not hesitate to seek professional help. Here are a few helpful links and remember you can always reach out to me as well!
Thankfully, compassion fatigue can be prevented. Being aware and in-tuned with yourself and your headspace is critical. Self-care and maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle are great ways to keep all aspects of your life in check. After all, it is impossible to take care of someone else if you, yourself, are not taken care of. You cannot lend positivity and encouragement to others if you don’t have it for yourself.
If you’ve already fallen completely into the fourth stage of compassion fatigue, there is still hope! BetterHelp offers a few strategies for overcoming this situation. They recommend taking note of what triggers you and causes you stress. That way you will be able to avoid it if possible or come up with solutions that help you work through it if it arises in the future. Setting boundaries and creating healthy coping mechanisms are also an option. Learning to say ‘no’ when you don’t have the bandwidth or mental capacity to handle something is an important skill to master in general, but it’s especially important when it comes to the compassion you give. It is ok to take a break when you need it.
Other things you can do personally to help you through moments of compassion fatigue involve talking to friends and family. Other than offering their support, these people can provide advice. They may have also experienced the trauma that you are witnessing in other people. They could have also experienced compassion fatigue before and can help you in that way. Be sure that you are not withdrawing yourself from those who love and support you because they can help ground you when dealing with these intense circumstances. Finally, always remember why you enjoy offering compassion to those who need it most. Think about the wins and progress you’ve experienced in the past and allow that to guide you in the future.
Every struggle is different, but we can all help prevent suicide. If you or a loved one is struggling, please do not hesitate to call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 (1-800-273-8255 can still be used as well). The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources, and best practices for professionals in the United States. You can also visit their website.
If you need any help on your spiritual journey, please feel free to contact me! I’m always happy and willing to help! I offer in-person appointments as well as HIPAA-compliant virtual options.