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Compassion fatigue

What is compassion fatigue? 

Compassion fatigue (or compassion stress) can be referred to as the cost of caring and describes when someone experiences higher levels of stress because they care deeply and, the people and/or animals they are caring for are going through a highly stressful experience or series of experiences. 

Compassion fatigue is considered to be one type of several empathy-based responses to stress that also include secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma. 

Over time, if unaddressed, compassion stress can lead to compassion fatigue and can look like:

  • A loss of compassion/empathy which can lead to poor judgment. 
  • Unexplained or unexpected ongoing negative feelings like:
    • loss of meaning and hope;
    • anger;
    • detachment;
    • depression.
  • Physical symptoms like:
    • fatigue;
    • headaches;
    • stomach issues;
    • high blood pressure;
    • and problems sleeping.
  • Problematic behaviors like:
    • performing poorly at work;
    • increased use of alcohol and substances;
    • conflict in close relationships and/or isolating yourself from loved ones.

How can we help prevent compassion fatigue? 

The most impactful way to prevent compassion fatigue is to consider if you have the resources you need to address the demands placed upon you. 

Reduce your stress.

If it is at work, is there a balanced workload between yourself and others? If it is at home, are there ways you can allocate some of your caregiving burden to others? Being responsible for too many things at once and not having enough time off to take care of ourselves can put us at risk for compassion fatigue. 

Increase your skills.

Research indicates that when someone feels less competent in what they’re doing, it increases their risk for compassion fatigue. Is there training or support you could access to help feel more competent and skilled in the context you are working in? 

Take care of yourself.

People who exercise regularly, eat nutritious meals, get enough sleep, have ways to relax and have fun, and have positive relationships with others are at reduced risk of compassion fatigue. Are there small steps you can take each day to make sure that you are ‘paying it forward’ to your future self? 

Get support.

Supportive workplaces, supervisors, coworkers, and support groups with other who are experiencing similar things, can all be helpful in preventing compassion fatigue. ​Are there ways for you to advocate for more support if you are in a workplace? Are there ways for you to connect with others experiencing similar things? If a support group doesn’t currently exist on the topic, can you start one? If you’re looking for someplace to start, check out these resources from NAMI Minnesota

If you feel that you are struggling with compassion fatigue, what should you do? 

The first to know is that what you’re feeling is normal; it is a normal response to an abnormal situation.

 A great first step is to talk to your health care provider who can talk with you about your concerns and what the next steps might be. If you’re unsure if you are struggling with compassion fatigue one approach is to take a validated self-assessment like the ProQOL (Professional Quality of Life). You can find this measure for free in several languages and it measures three areas: 1) compassion satisfaction, burnout and compassion fatigue. It is the measure recommended by the Veterans Administration. Bring your results with you to your next health care appointment to discuss with your provider. If you’re unsure how to access a healthcare provider, check out this resource from Minnesota Department of Health and Human Resources

Author: Emily Becher, University of Minnesota Extension Applied Research and Evaluation specialist 

Reviewed in 2022

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