Compassion fatigue is often called “the cost of caring.” It’s a type of stress response or burnout, sometimes likened to PTSD; a syndrome that occurs most frequently in helping professions: nurses, physicians, counselors and other health care professionals; police, firefighters and first responders, and anyone who treats and is continually exposed to the pain and trauma of others.

Psychologist Dr. Charles Figley, Professor at Tulane University, New Orleans and Director of the Tulane Traumatology Institute is a pioneer in the study of this particular type of professional stress. He says that:

“Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

While there are similarities with burnout, the American Institute of Stress says that there is a clear difference: “Compassion fatigue has a more rapid onset while burnout emerges over time. Compassion Fatigue has a faster recovery (less severe, if recognized and managed early).”

As with many mental health issues, the first step in addressing and recovering is awareness and recognition. The Compassion Fatigue Project offers lists of common symptoms, both for individuals as well as for organizations, noting that: “When Compassion Fatigue hits critical mass in the workplace, the organization itself suffers. Chronic absenteeism, spiraling Worker’s Comp costs, high turnover rates, friction between employees, and friction between staff and management are among organizational symptoms that surface, creating additional stress on workers.

In FPM Journal from the American Academy of Family Physicians, John-Henry Pfifferling, PhD, and Kay Gilley, MS author a terrific article on Overcoming Compassion Fatigue that discusses causes and a 9-question self-assessment, and a list of warning signs. The article also offers recovery Do’s and Don’ts, as well as a self-care plan. Also see: Are You Suffering from Compassion Fatigue?, an article in Psychology Today that offers common signs and symptoms.

The American Stress Institute offers these management tips. Although aimed at physicians and healthcare workers, they re largely applicable to anyone who suffers from this syndrome.

Do:

  • Find someone to talk to.
  • Understand that the pain you feel is normal.
  • Exercise and eat properly.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Take some time off.
  • Develop interests outside of medicine.
  • Identify what’s important to you.

Don’t:

  • Blame others.
  • Look for a new job, buy a new car, get a divorce or have an affair.
  • Fall into the habit of complaining with your colleagues.
  • Hire a lawyer.
  • Work harder and longer.
  • Self-medicate.
  • Neglect your own needs and interests.

Patricia Smith founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. In this TED Talk, she says that caregivers are often so busy caring for others that they tend to neglect their own emotional, physical, and spiritual health. She offers simple self-care measures that caregivers can practice to help deal with the complexity of the emotions they’ve been juggling.

Compassion Fatigue Resources

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