You Might Be Feeling Compassion Fatigue: Here's How To Manage It

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Compassion Fatigue

A pandemic, a fight for racial justice, and an upcoming election.

Not feeling tired in 2020 would be out of the ordinary.

But for some people, the feeling of exhaustion around this year's events may extend beyond general fatigue. What some people are experiencing is more of an emotional exhaustion from trying to care so much about so many people and issues at once. There's actually a word for this feeling, which is distinct from run-of-the-mill burnout: compassion fatigue

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is described in one study as "stress resulting from exposure to a traumatized individual." Specifically, it can result from taking a "rescue-caretaking response" but being unable to actually rescue or save the person, resulting in guilt or distress.

"An often extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the emotional pain and/or physical distress of those being helped can create a secondary traumatic stress for the caregiver," the study authors explain. "When converged with cumulative burnout, a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by a depleted ability to cope with one's everyday environment, compassion fatigue results."

Compassion fatigue is common in health care workers, first responders, and anyone helping an individual who has faced difficult or traumatic circumstances. It may also be relevant to social justice activists and anyone who spends a lot of time and energy rallying around a pro-social cause.

"Compassion fatigue can lead to feeling disconnected and angry with ourselves and those we serve," board-certified psychiatrist Kimberly Sanders, M.D., tells mbg. "It really has to do more with empathy and our capacity to share another person's experience. When the lines become blurred with ourselves and those we intend to help, compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress can begin to set in."

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Compassion fatigue vs. burnout.

Compassion fatigue can often be mistaken for burnout. While the two are related, they are brought about by different means. Burnout is defined as the physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress, Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., executive director of the American Institute of Stress, previously told mbg.  

According to Sanders, burnout can happen in any job and is caused by the stress of the work itself, whereas compassion fatigue is caused by the nature of the relationship between the helper and the person receiving help. Burnout may be a component of compassion fatigue, but the latter also deals with interpersonal dynamics involved in trying to help someone.

How to manage compassion fatigue: 

1. Practice mindfulness.

One study published in Social Work Research found mindfulness (particularly guided imagery) can decrease anxiety and improve sleep quality in people suffering from compassion fatigue. A few other mindfulness techniques include meditation, journaling, and even sleeping a little longer each night.

2. Find compassion for yourself. 

With the help of mindfulness practices, Sanders recommends expanding compassion for yourself. "Through intentionally cultivating compassion, we can regain satisfaction in our work with others and help maintain some of the boundaries that prevent compassion fatigue from overtaking us," she explains.  

One of her favorite methods for increasing compassion is a loving-kindness meditation. These usually affirm a person's own worth and right to happiness and safety, she says. "It can be a helpful way to stay grounded while simultaneously acknowledging your connection to and distinction from those you serve."

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3. Ask for help. 

It's OK to admit that you can't do it all on your own. Receiving support from others can help you relinquish some of the emotional burden that's too heavy to carry alone. Plus, confiding in others has been shown to protect against depressive symptoms. Friends, family members, co-workers, and mental health professionals can all be beneficial.

The bottom line.

There are many social causes to care about and fight for right now, but it's important to be mindful of our own mental health and protect ourselves from compassion fatigue. Ultimately, taking care of yourself is what will allow you to keep showing up for the people you care about.

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