Running Low in Empathy? How to cure fatigue fatigue

Woman rests her head on her hands, exhaustedThe world is full of misery. People who are committed to helping others – including those who help professions such as mental health and medicine, activists, volunteers and highly sensitive people – face direct exposure to a wide range of ailments. Compassion fatigue is a type of submissive trauma that occurs when a person is overwhelmed by the trauma and struggles of other people.

In its early stages, the pity of compassion can cause a person to worry about injustice and his desire to correct it. As the fatigue of compassion intensifies, it can lead to apathy and exhaustion. This can undermine a person's relationships and connections with others. And for people who help professions, compassion can be devastating.

What is the fatigue of compassion?

The fatigue of compassion is like exhaustion, as it can destroy a person's physical, emotional and spiritual energy. Unlike burnout, however, it only occurs in environments where a person provides extensive emotional support or emotional work. In some cases, the symptoms of sympathetic fatigue are similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The fatigue of compassion is like exhaustion, as it can destroy a person's physical, emotional and spiritual energy.

Some other ways in which compassion fatigue differs from burning include:

  • The explosion occurs when a person's environment is stressful, while the fatigue from compassion occurs when a person's interactions with other people lose their emotional reserves.
  • People with compassion can begin to avoid situations in which they have to deal with another person's suffering, but they cannot avoid another job.
  • Fatigue of compassion can cause loss of sympathy for others.
  • People with a sense of compassion may feel cynical, apathetic, or disconnected from others.
  • Burning usually improves when a person needs time away from the source of the burn. Fatigue of compassion can persist.

Who gets tired of compassion?

Anyone who spends a lot of time helping others or thinking about the suffering of others can develop fatigue from compassion. Some particularly vulnerable populations include:

  • Very nice people who tend to serve as "therapists" to their family or friends.
  • People in dysfunctional families who are constantly trying to support other family members without seeking support for themselves.
  • People in medical professions and mental health professions, especially providers who work with injured, abused or deceased people.
  • People in fields facing systemic injustice. Lawyers working to challenge cases or issues of social justice, activists, people working to prevent child abuse and others working to end systemic issues are at risk. The project does not need to be remunerated. A volunteer rape counselor, for example, could easily develop compassion fatigue.
  • Professionals who usually intervene in traumatic or life-threatening situations. First responders, such as firefighters, police and EMS professionals, may report minor trauma or compassion.
  • Caregivers in chronic sick people. An adult child caring for a parent with dementia or other terminal illness may feel tired and burnt.

Some research shows that compassion fatigue is more prevalent when a person receives insufficient support for their work. A caregiver for a person with dementia may be more vulnerable to fatigue when other family members refuse to help or constantly criticize their care.

Fatigue symptoms

Symptoms of compassion vary from person to person and may change over time. They include:

  • Symptoms that resemble PTSD, such as flashbacks, avoidance, annoying dreams and nightmares.
  • Inability to show compassion or sympathy. A caring doctor may start blaming patients for their illness, while a social worker may lose interest in helping struggling families.
  • Sacrifice and dissatisfaction.
  • To become socially disconnected.
  • Feeling we have 'Run out of gas' emotionally.
  • Having fewer and fewer boundaries between work and home.
  • Reduce productivity and efficiency.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Depression.

Strategies to prevent fatigue from compassion

Fatigue of compassion is a common struggle and cannot always be avoided. It often comes on suddenly, even after a person has been doing well for years. Some prevention strategies, however, can reduce the risk and help a person better manage the symptoms of compassion fatigue:

  • Schedule time for personal care, including eating healthy meals, exercising and living in pleasant hobbies.
  • Set clear boundaries. No one needs to answer calls 24 hours a day or provide constant care to another person.
  • Take time away from work or caregiving work where possible.
  • Spend time with people who support and understand the work you do. A public interest lawyer, for example, can find support and assistance from weekly meetings with lawyers in similar fields.
  • Trust the practice. Fatigue of compassion can cause a person to become frustrated and overwhelmed. Meditations and approximate living strategies can neutralize these senses.
  • Avoid working at home. Do not read disturbed emails or hear voice messages during the delay time. People involved in unpaid care or activism need to plan time away from their pursuits.
  • I'm looking for help. No one can solve the world's problems. Family caregivers should consider care options or seek help from other family members. Professional assistants should explore additional resources to help their clients while reducing their exhaustion.
  • Reward yourself for hard work For example, plan a trip with friends after a meeting with a difficult client.

Treatment of fatigue

Fatigue fatigue is a response to chronic stress, not a diagnosis of mental health. This means that treating fatigue from compassion requires a person to take some relief from their stress. This may mean:

  • Reducing their workload or seeing fewer customers.
  • It takes time away from work.
  • Establish clear work-life limits.
  • Change one's approach to work.

In some occupations, stress reduction may not be possible. For example, an emergency physician dealing with abusive survivors may have little control over their workload, and a skilled death penalty lawyer may be the only person in his or her area who can handle such complex cases. People in these situations may need extensive ongoing support, medications to manage stress and depression, and regular breaks from work.

Regardless of the cause of compassion fatigue, a therapist can help a person:

  • Evaluate their limits. In some cases, a person develops fatigue from compassion because he feels obliged to "save" everyone.
  • Create a better work-life balance. Time away from work, important hobbies, exercise and self-care can all help with fatigue from compassion and burning.
  • Relax. Develop relaxation strategies such as meditation and mindfulness at the moment.
  • Identify other resources that may help you. For example, a doctor may gain significant relief from stress by hiring an office assistant or relying more on nursing staff.
  • Gain new skills. New strategies for dealing with personal challenges or challenges in the workplace can help a person avoid fatigue from compassion. For example, by learning to listen without giving advice, a parent can offer more support to a struggling child without feeling so exhausted after each discussion.

GoodTherapy can help you find a therapist who specializes in compassion fatigue. Start your search here.

Bibliographical references:

  1. Behavioral fatigue. (n.d.). The American Institute of Anxiety. Retrieved from
  2. Behavioral fatigue. (2017, August 23). American Bar Association Retrieved from
  3. Gallagher, R. (2013). Behavioral fatigue. Canadian family doctor, 59(3), 265-268. Retrieved from
  4. Pfifferling, J., & Gilley, K. (2000). Overcoming the fatigue of compassion. Retrieved from

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