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Compassion Fatigue: Is It Healthy to Care Too Much?

Medically reviewed by Rubilyn Saldana-Santiago, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Fred Layno · Updated Jul 27, 2022

    Compassion Fatigue: Is It Healthy to Care Too Much?

    Compassion fatigue occurs when medical professionals are constantly exposed to human suffering. This is evidenced by fatigue and lack of energy. 

    The stress of working with people in crisis and supporting victims can lead to fatigue, trauma, and burnout. Compassion fatigue comes from the day-to-day encounters and working with traumatized people. This causes secondary traumatic stress to the caregiver. Compassion fatigue manifests in the physical, mental, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, interpersonal reactions of the caregiver. 

    It is important to recognize signs of compassion fatigue, including emotional reactions. Incorporating mental health care into emergency planning and recognizing these signs of stress, exhaustion, and fatigue of emergency personnel and patients are very important. 

    How Does Compassion Fatigue Affect You?

    Dr. Charles R. Figley, founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University, explained that CF is a professional risk for “any professionals who use their emotions, their heart.” It represents the psychological cost of healing a person. “It’s like a dark cloud that hangs over your head, goes wherever you go, and invades your thoughts,” he says.

    According to Dr. Kelly A. Schwantz of Coastal Carolina University, compassionate fatigue does not just make it difficult for a caregiver to empathize with the patient. It can also lead to burnout. This is related to too much work and not enough resources to do it right.

    Burnout can lead to depression and anxiety, and exhaustion. It can also lead to feelings of dissatisfaction with life and work. “I sometimes refer to this component as ‘empathy overload,’” Schwantz added, adding that the symptoms have nothing to do with anxiety, intrusive thought, hyperactivity, or numbness.

    Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

    If unmanaged, compassion fatigue can lead to burnout, anger, and irritability. People who experience CF may also foster negative coping behaviors, including alcohol and substance abuse. These can be further aggravated by the severity of the traumatic material to which the caregiver is exposed to.

    They are likely to experience CF if they are in regular direct contact with the victim or exposed to situations that are graphic in nature. Occupations at risk of developing CF include health care, rescue workers, and community service workers. CF can lead to debilitating conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

    Emotional symptoms can include:

    • Isolating yourself from others
    • Feeling numb or disconnected
    • Lack of care about the things around you
    • Feeling overwhelmed, powerless or hopeless
    • Not being able to relate to others
    • Feeling angry, sad or depressed
    • Obsessive thoughts about the suffering of others
    • Feeling tense or agitated
    • Feeling speechless
    • Failing to respond appropriately to situations
    • Self-blame

    Physical symptoms can include:

    • Inability to concentrate
    • Inability to be productive or complete daily tasks
    • Headaches
    • Nausea or upset stomach
    • Difficulty sleeping or constant racing thoughts
    • Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol
    • Conflicts in your relationships
    • Changes in your appetite
    • Feeling exhausted all the time
    • Avoiding work or other activities

    How to Recover From Compassion Fatigue

    If you are like most doctors, your personal identity may be linked to your professional life. Do not think of compassion fatigue as a flaw or failure in accomplishing your role. You have to know that the pain of compassionate fatigue is unpleasant but normal and disappears as soon as you start worrying about your physical and emotional needs. 

    Follow these tips to recover from compassion fatigue: 

    • Meditate and spend a lot of time alone in silence. These can be a great way to get in touch with the present and prevent your mind from leading you in another direction. The ability to reconnect with spiritual sources can also help you achieve your inner balance and ease the anxiety. 
    • Recharge daily. Eating well and taking a break from other activities during a meal can bring great benefits to both your mind and body. Regular exercise programs help reduce stress, balance the outside world, and restore time spent with family and friends. 
    • Have daily, meaningful conversations with family and close friends.  You can also foster interests other than medicine. Identify what is important to you.

    Learn more about Stress Management here


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Rubilyn Saldana-Santiago, MD


    Written by Fred Layno · Updated Jul 27, 2022

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