Compassion fatigue is the reduction in the capacity of an individual to feel compassion towards others who are suffering.
Compassion is a basic and important human emotion. When we hear about someone who has gone or is going through a traumatic experience, we often feel and express feelings of sympathy and concern for them. This is a part of what makes us human. However, can we get tired of being compassionate?
The short answer? Yes, we can, and the name for such a shift is called compassion fatigue.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is the gradual, reduced ability to feel compassion for someone else’s suffering.
When a person is constantly exposed to the suffering of others, they experience that trauma through the victim’s eyes. Over time, this can lead to a decreased capacity for feeling compassion towards a person’s suffering.
Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard in fields like nursing, therapy, healthcare, and social work, wherein the individual comes in regular contact with people who are suffering. These professionals are not just exposed to victims, but also have the added responsibility of caring for and helping them.
Even in these fields, compassion fatigue occurs most often amongst professionals dealing with comparatively severe trauma, such as nurses in cancer care and palliative care units, mental health professionals who deal with victims of abuse, etc.
While compassion fatigue is mostly observed in healthcare and other related professions, it can come into play in many other realms. For instance, teachers who teach children from abused homes or neighborhoods with high crime rates may also experience compassion fatigue.
The general public can suffer from compassion fatigue too! Regularly watching the news, for instance, can lead to this condition. While the effects of compassion fatigue (discussed below) will not be as strong in the masses as they will be in these trauma-oriented professions, the general public may still experience a reduced ability to be compassionate.
What are the effects of compassion fatigue?
As expected, the most obvious effect will be a reduced feeling of compassion. However, apart from this, more serious and severe effects are also possible.
These can be categorized as emotional, cognitive and physical effects.
Emotional effects include anxiety, depression, guilt, fear, anger, and helplessness, among others. Additionally, the person may experience mood swings, irritability, feeling withdrawn, isolated, overwhelmed, exhausted or drained out, and they may become overly sensitive. Compassion fatigue can also lead to burnout and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms, albeit due to secondary trauma, if the problem is not addressed.
Cognitive effects can manifest as apathy, a reduced sense of self-esteem, difficulty in concentration, memory loss, impaired behavior and judgement, etc.
Some of the physical manifestations include sleep disturbances, headaches and a loss of appetite.
As a healthcare professional, compassion fatigue can impair your ability to provide adequate care for your patients. Even in other professions, compassion fatigue can affect how well you do your job, which can also impact your career. If left unchecked, compassion fatigue can require drastic measures like a job or career change. Fortunately, there are some ways that these adverse effects can be avoided.
As mentioned before, the masses generally don’t experience such severe effects, but even a reduced capacity for compassion and apathy can have significant consequences. It can desensitize people, as well as create an atmosphere of fear. Compassion fatigue might also prevent individuals from participating in their communities or being a part of social change.
Compassion fatigue versus Burnout
Compassion fatigue, although often confused with burnout, is notably different. Burnout results due to dissatisfaction with a job and/or the result of one’s effort. It can also be a result of conflict between a person and the demands of their organization. Compassion fatigue results from secondary trauma, i.e., indirect exposure to trauma, and has a prolonged effect.
How can compassion fatigue be prevented and managed?
The first step to avoiding compassion fatigue is awareness. Accepting and understanding feelings of compassion fatigue might help you deal with it better. Mindfulness and living in the present moment might also be helpful, which can come in the form of meditation, physical activity, or a hobby that connects you to the present.
When talking about compassion fatigue in professionals, maintaining a work-life balance is important. As important as it is to do your work with dedication, it is equally necessary to switch off and take a break. When a professional starts experiencing compassion fatigue, taking some time off work and going for a small holiday can be very beneficial. A consistent sleep schedule and regular exercise might further help maintain a healthy balance.
Having a mentor has also been shown to reduce the chances of compassion fatigue. It can give you a chance to talk about your feelings, and express them to someone when you feel overwhelmed. Connecting with colleagues also improves your coping skills, reminding you that you’re not alone.
For the general public, it’s important to accept and talk about their feelings. Moderating your intake of news and social media is a good strategy to be aware of what is going on, as well as looking after yourself.
Having a strong support system at work or at home can go a long way towards preventing and dealing with compassion fatigue. Being aware of your surroundings and feelings, finding a balance in your activities, and connecting with others who understand your situation are critical elements of preventing and managing compassion fatigue.