What is Compassion Fatigue: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Burnout is possible in every role. You can experience burnout even if you are not an employee. It takes many shapes and sizes and can impact people from all walks of life. Those who have a frail support system, or do not feel they have a support system at all, however, are the ones most at risk. This support system means being financially secure, having friends and family there to care for you, and of course, it also means having the option to take yourself out of whatever stressful situation you are in.

One of the most difficult kinds of burnout is the burnout caused by compassion fatigue.

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What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a unique type of stress that doesn’t entirely stem from you and your experience. It affects those that work in carer roles in one way or another. Medical workers tend to experience compassion fatigue. Social workers experience compassion fatigue, childcare workers, carers, and those that work in supportive roles for others.

These roles are noble, and they do provide a huge difference in the lives of others. The stress, however, comes from two things. The first is from the compassion you extend. Caring about others is great, but if you care too much, and too often, you take home your patient or case subject’s pain with you. Their pain is your pain because you feel responsible and in a position where you can make it better, even if that isn’t always the case.

Then there is the added fact that when people are in stressful situations (whether they are scared, in pain, or experiencing a combination of the two), they lash out. They lash out, and you will be the easiest, softest target.

It can make it feel like you are working hard and bleeding for those that don’t care or want your help.

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Compassion fatigue is unique, it can be detrimental to your career and personal life, and it can be the leading factor that drives you towards burnout or chronic stress. Being able to protect yourself so that you can avoid compassion fatigue and the subsequent stress or burnout is one of the primary skills that all compassion and essential workers need.

What are the Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue?


Compassion fatigue shares symptoms with chronic stress and burnout. It is caused because of the empathy you lend towards the job, the abuse may experience at your job by the people you are trying to help, and even grief.

Being aware of the symptoms of compassion fatigue can help you identify the concern and take immediate action to help prevent burnout in your future.

1.      Mood Swings

Mood swings are a common symptom of compassion fatigue and chronic stress. Your patience shortens, which means you may find yourself going from having a pleasant morning to being furious at the smallest provocation simply because you do not have the emotional bandwidth to handle an in-between or moderate response.

You may notice dramatic shifts in your mood, may be very quick to anger, or may even become increasingly pessimistic about yourself or others.

2.      Detachment

The body is predisposed to want to avoid stress. One of the ways it may do this when you work as a social worker or similar role is through emotional distancing. This feeling of detachment can mean you withdraw from your social connections, or you may even feel numbness in your personal or professional life. If you find you just don’t have it in you to care any longer, this is a serious sign of compassion fatigue.

3.      Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the common disorders that can develop in those who are experiencing chronic stress. This is particularly true if you experience a lot of abuse from those you are trying to help, or a lot of criticism from their families or even from your co-workers. The level of anxiety you experience can be minor to being classed as a Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

4.      Depression

Depression is another comorbid disorder that can co-occur within those experiencing compassion fatigue. Failing others, especially with others being vocal of their displeasure and actively looking to make you hurt like they hurt, which is an unfortunate reality for many social workers, can lead to negative thoughts, thoughts of worthlessness, and thoughts of unworthiness. These, in turn, can worsen or even start a depressive episode.

5.      Difficulty in Concentrating

Difficulty in concentrating is common amongst those that feel compassion fatigue. You are often suffering from an overstimulation of input. The job of a social worker is rarely simple or straightforward, and even with the best of intentions, many can fall in the cracks simply due to a lack of funding and oversight in the field. Being overwhelmed can make it hard to stay on top of your work, especially if you find you can never get on top of what you need to do. A huge reason why you may find it hard to be productive is simply that you feel demoralized, and your brain is making it difficult to focus on the work that you need to be done.

6.      Difficulty in Sleeping

Anxiety and chronic stress can both result in difficulty sleeping or even a sleeping disorder. Sleeping, especially sleeping well, is one of the cornerstones of a healthy mind and body. If you cannot sleep due to anxiety, stress, or disruptive thoughts then you will automatically be less capable of handling stress and heavy workloads associated with roles like social work.


What are the Symptoms of Chronic Stress?

Those who experience compassion fatigue also typically exhibit symptoms of chronic fatigue. Chronic fatigue is a lower level of stress that is often continuous, which makes it very difficult to manage over time. Being stressed results in the body producing cortisol, which then results in adrenaline, tenses your muscles, and puts your body in a fight-or-flight state. Over prolonged periods, it can increase cardiovascular risks, result in sleeping disorders, cause or worsen anxiety or depression, and more.

What are the Symptoms of Burnout?

Burnout is the final stage of severe stress. Physically you may feel exhausted, frequently get sick and ill, experience headaches or muscle pain, and develop sleeping or digestive issues. You may feel like every day is a bad day, that the smallest problem can set you off, can result in frequent panic attacks, and can make you increasingly volatile or cynical. Burnout can make you withdraw, isolate yourself, lash out, or turn to addictive substances for relief.

How Do You Treat Compassion Fatigue?

To prevent and treat compassion fatigue, you need to invest in self-care. Self-care for social workers makes a massive difference in your overall health and wellbeing, in your work, and in your outlook. If you find you have increasingly bad days, you are on a downward slope towards burnout. To avoid that burnout, you will need to work on establishing these four pillars of support.

·         Improve Physical Health and Wellbeing

One of the best ways to improve your baseline is to improve your physical health. While living well (eating healthy, exercising regularly, and sleeping well) cannot stop all mental health concerns, it will prevent poor health from exacerbating how you feel. Living well gives your body the tools it needs to better manage your emotions, stress, and energy. By improving your routine to include healthy habits, you will immediately start working to fortify your health and wellbeing.

·         Improve Your Support System

You need a support system. This system should be varied. It should include friends and family, co-workers, support groups, and even paid services. If you are too overwhelmed to clean after work and then get increasingly stressed and anxious at home in a dirty space, for example, then hiring cleaning services (if you can afford them) can take that stress out of the equation. Use all the resources, free or paid, that are within your reach.

·         Seek Out Professional Aid

Mental health is far more complex than friends and family can provide. Having people there who love you unconditionally is an essential part of any support system, yes, but they don’t have the training to help you break away from negative cycles. Finding a therapist that understands your background can help immensely. See if there is a therapist, for example, that specializes in compassion fatigue and who frequently works with other social workers. At a minimum, having someone there to share and organize your thoughts, no matter what they may be, without judgment can be very powerful. In other cases, you may even get homework and help in how you can break negative thought cycles.

·         Set Firm Boundaries

Prevention is the best piece of advice that you will receive when it comes to managing your compassion fatigue. The best way to prevent it is by setting boundaries with yourself and others. This means keeping everything through the purview of work. No personal messages, no after-work calls, no late-night work. Work at work and leave work at work.

You will also need to set personal boundaries for yourself. Setting these boundaries gives you a safe space to retreat to whenever you are feeling overwhelmed and can help you avoid becoming overwhelmed in the first place.

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