How to Reduce Compassion Fatigue and Build Compassion Resilience

RAFT Team, November 1, 2021

What is compassion fatigue?

Providing support and care for traumatized people is highly rewarding. Advocates know this, which is why you do it. But this work is also highly stressful. If you’re feeling tired day-in and day-out, and emotionally, and mentally distressed, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with compassion fatigue. The good news is that you can reduce compassion fatigue by building your compassion resilience.

Dr. Charles R. Figley, Traumatology Institute founder, defined compassion fatigue as a combination of burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Without even trying, or often without even knowing, you pick up the trauma and stress of those you support. The impact of this ongoing stress when left unaddressed is what can lead to compassion fatigue. 

If you’re having a difficult time caring about things you used to care a lot about, keep reading. There’s hope!

Who gets it?

The irony of compassion fatigue is that the people who care the most are most susceptible to compassion fatigue. Highly empathetic people — those who will support and serve those experiencing trauma — are the ones who over time can begin to feel numb. The longer this goes on, the more numb you feel. 

So it’s caregivers, emergency responders, health care workers, social workers, and DV and SV advocates who experience compassion fatigue in high numbers. Every hero who stands beside a man, woman, child, or animal who has faced tragedy and trauma personally can also experience compassion fatigue.

If you’re a caregiver at work and also one at home, you’re at much greater risk for compassion fatigue. And these days, with Covid stress added on top of everything else, it’s a high possibility even for those outside of frontline caregivers.

Compassion fatigue risk increase if you're also a caregiver at home

There is no shame in experiencing compassion fatigue. It shows you care deeply for others. When you continually push aside your own needs in favor of supporting the people around you, the small stresses become larger stresses, and pretty soon, your capacity to help others begins to fade. The continual giving, giving, giving is a beautiful thing. But when you don’t pause to give back to yourself, to support your own needs, compassion fatigue can set in. 

What are compassion fatigue symptoms? 

The symptom lists are varied but long. One of the best ways to prevent compassion fatigue is to educate yourself on all the signs and symptoms, then conduct a weekly check-in with yourself to rate your own symptoms on a 1-10 scale. If the number starts to creep higher, it’s time to implement some extra resilience builders. 

This compassion fatigue symptoms list for health care workers is also accurate for advocates: 

  • Slowness of thought
  • Difficulty prioritizing tasks
  • Difficulty initiating routine tasks
  • Irritability and/or anxiety
  • Preoccupation with minor issues and familiar tasks
  • Indecision and lack of concentration
  • Loss of initiative with fatigue
  • Exhaustion and poor self-care
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches
  • Substance abuse
  • Loss of adaptability
  • Inability to relax
  • Physical symptoms (at work or when thinking of work): nausea, insomnia, heart palpitations, and other issues

How do you build compassion resilience?

You wouldn’t wish those symptoms on your enemy, so why put up with them in your own life? While there’s not a magic pill to make them all go away, it is possible to reduce compassion fatigue and build compassion resilience. 

Resilience refers to the skills, abilities, knowledge, and insights that accumulate over time as we learn to overcome adversity and deal effectively with challenges.

But true resilience doesn’t stop there. It’s also about learning to recognize your fatigue and then take action to rest and recover before your tank is empty. Compassion fatigue comes when you hit empty again and again. The sooner you learn to keep the pendulum swing more balanced between running out of emotional energy to filling yourself back up, the greater resilience you’ll build. 

So what fills the tank? It varies with every person, but the following list has some great ideas that work for most:

Reduce Compassion Fatigue by developing hobbies
  • Build relationships outside of work. These social relationships are one of the best ways to reduce stress.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Writing out and focusing on positive things will retrain your brain to see more positive things every day.
  • Focus on what you can control. 
  • Step away. If the things you can’t control feel too overwhelming, step away for a bit. Take a long walk in some fresh air. Do something you enjoy for a few hours. As guilt-inducing as this may feel at first because of all the suffering others are experiencing, this separation can actually increase your capacity to help them.
  • Appreciate your own ability to have compassion for others. Grief expert David Kessler said, “After all my years working with the dying and the grieving, I have found that in this lifetime, the ultimate meaning we find is in everyone we have loved.” Never forget that when you aid the suffering, you do great and noble work. 
  • Consider counseling or therapy. Naming and talking through our emotions lowers our stress response. Doing with a trusted resource is worth the investment.

No matter what stage of compassion fatigue you may find yourself in, there is always hope. Compassion resilience takes intentionality and practice, but the result is a happier, less stressful life, and a deeper ability to care for the people around you.