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What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Do you work in healthcare? Is it hard for you to remain compassionate lately? Do you have a hard time caring for the people in your charge? It’s true; this could be burnout. After all, healthcare professions are very demanding. But it’s also possible you’re dealing with something called compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is an interesting phenomenon. It’s what happens when you witness too much suffering or when you take care of countless people who’ve experienced a lot of trauma.

Compassion fatigue isn’t instant, though. It takes a while to build up. But when it does, it can feel like your empathetic reserves have run dry. If your job is in a field that requires empathy and compassion, it can make things very difficult.

But what exactly does compassion fatigue feel like? How can you know it’s not burnout or something else entirely?

Reduced Empathy

When you spend too much time extending your empathy to everyone you meet, you eventually reach a point when you can’t give anymore. When that happens, people can tell you the most traumatic of stories, yet you might feel numb or detached. It feels as if there’s a disconnect between you and the other person. You might find it challenging to react “accordingly.”

This is all accompanied by a constant sense of exhaustion. It can be physical, yes, but it can also be mental exhaustion. You’re too tired to think, too tired to do much of anything. And, of course, the exhaustion can be emotional too. You’re too tired to feel much of anything these days. That’s why you feel so numb and detached from the world around you.

photo of a man holding the hands of a woman in a wheelchairMore Hostility

Compassion fatigue can make you much more irritable than you used to be. You may find yourself getting angry more often than normal. Every little thing can push you closer to snapping. This affects your relationships too. You might experience more conflict now or find you are much more argumentative than you used to be, and your relationships suffer as a result.

Poor Self-Care

When you’re experiencing compassion fatigue, the exhaustion that comes with it makes it very hard to take care of yourself. You have a hard time sleeping, you don’t eat right or keep up with your hygiene as strictly.

It also makes it hard to do the things you like. You no longer have interest in the things you used to love. You don’t spend time with your friends anymore. You spend much more time alone. But instead of this solitude making you feel better, it just compounds on top of everything else making you feel lonely and isolated.

Physical Discomfort

When you’re dealing with something as intense as compassion fatigue, it’s not unusual to experience physical discomfort. This can be anything from headaches and dizziness to nausea or an upset stomach. On top of the literal feelings of fatigue and exhaustion, this can take its toll on you. It makes it harder for you to go about your day. Since there’s no physical reason for this discomfort, it can be hard to know how to get rid of it, but it’s not impossible.

Coping with Compassion Fatigue

Just like it’s possible to develop compassion fatigue, it’s possible to heal from it. But it takes time and patience. And, often, you might find yourself needing professional help. This is common for a lot of people who work in healthcare, and you’re far from alone. So, if you’re struggling and find compassion fatigue is affecting your life, then remember counseling is there to help you get through this. Don’t hesitate to reach out to learn more about therapy for caregivers,  trauma or anxiety therapy.