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Compassion Fatigue: What Is It and How to Get Help

By Ashley Delmar 

If you work in a caring profession such as health care, veterinary medicine, or social services, or care for a chronically ill loved one, you've probably heard the term compassion fatigue at least once or twice. Compassion fatigue happens when individuals exposed to repeated emotional trauma experience extreme emotional exhaustion and lose the ability to empathize with patients or clients. First described in 1992 by author Carla Joinson, compassion fatigue can have a serious impact on our ability to cope. 

Signs of Compassion Fatigue 

The symptoms of compassion fatigue often come on slowly, so it's important to know what signs to look for so you can get help when a problem arises. Most people who experience compassion fatigue describe overwhelming feelings of exhaustion, hopelessness, and apathy towards work or activities they once found pleasurable. What can start as simple frustration can shift to more serious symptoms like depression or anxiety when left untreated. According to Nurse and Midwife Support, some people suffering from compassion fatigue also develop harmful coping mechanisms such as risky behaviors like gambling and overspending, substance abuse, or even self-harm. These behaviors likely develop when compassion fatigue sufferers feel trapped and unable to escape from their overwhelming feelings of distress and mental fatigue. 

How Compassion Fatigue Impacts Your Work and Personal Life 

As mentioned above, compassion fatigue often translates to an inability to express empathy however, this doesn't necessarily mean sufferers stop caring about other people. Even though those with compassion fatigue may still be passionate about their chosen fields, years of untreated work-related stress and trauma can cause people to feel like they just don't have the energy needed to devote to their careers. The emotional symptoms of compassion fatigue can also manifest as irritability, mood swings, and can cause people to act out or being extremely emotional when confronted with stress. These symptoms can often make focusing and making good decisions at work impossible. Physical symptoms like aches, pains, and sleep disruption can also make it extremely difficult to function in the workplace. 

How to Get Help 

If you feel overwhelmed at work and think you might be suffering from compassion fatigue, it's important to take a step back to decompress before your symptoms get out of hand. Participating in activities you enjoy for even an hour a week can go a long way in providing a much-needed respite from a demanding workplace. Online compassion fatigue support groups targeted to members of your profession are also great for connecting with others who are feeling the same way. Your health care provider can also direct you to local compassion fatigue resources and help you find the support you need. 

Compassion fatigue often occurs when sufferers feel as if they cannot escape from the stressors of the workplace. Being honest with yourself about how you're feeling, knowing the signs what signs to watch for and taking a step back when you need it is an important part of preventing compassion fatigue. While compassion fatigue can take a toll on your career and personal life, numerous support groups and resources exist to help sufferers find support.

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