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Everything You Need to Know About Compassion Fatigue

According to the CDC, over 50% of people will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their life. As a society, more people struggle with mental illnesses than don’t. Ultimately, this shows that we need to be there for each other and help each other work through this common struggle.

At times, helping others work through these challenges can be mentally draining on you. As the caretaker and someone who loves those around you, it can be exhausting to help them work through their challenges. Helping others often requires you to feel some of their pain, empathize with what they are going through, and feel their struggles.

When you do this, especially for an extended period of time, it can result in compassion fatigue. This feeling of burnout or exhaustion is especially common in professionals who help people every day, including psychologists, doctors, and other mental health professionals. But, it can also occur in everyday people striving to help friends, family, or other loved ones through complex challenges.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines compassion fatigue as “burnout and stress-related symptoms experienced by caregivers and other helping professionals in reaction to working with traumatized people over an extended period of time.”

Compassion fatigue generally refers to physical, emotional, and mental fatigue that happens after one works closely to help individuals over a long period of time.

Those who experience compassion fatigue tend to take on the pain, suffering, and burdens of the people they are helping. This exhaustion is typically felt physically, emotionally, or mentally. It usually begins affecting numerous areas of your life, and you may start to feel numb.

This type of burnout may also be referred to as “secondary traumatic stress” because you, as a caregiver, end up going through a traumatic experience through the person you are striving to help. Often the people struggling will have gone through something traumatic or be facing very emotionally heavy burdens. As the caregiver, you may end up feeling similar emotions as the person you are trying to help. As you do this and go through “secondary traumatic stress,” compassion fatigue may occur.

In our society, we often hear about “burnout.” Compassion fatigue is a type of burnout aimed at a specific situation or experience rather than a general situation. You may become burnt out of helping a specific individual while not feeling exhausted from helping others. It is typically targeted exhaustion in a particular situation. When it escalates to interfering with other aspects of your life, usually, that means it is severe.

Finally, compassion fatigue often occurs in caregivers and mental health professionals who spend their careers empathizing with people and helping them through challenging moments. Just because these professionals have a higher likelihood of feeling this doesn’t mean you can’t as an everyday person.

People who spend time giving, serving, and helping others through traumatic or difficult situations can also feel this compassion fatigue. You may feel your emotional “battery” draining and begin feeling other people’s emotions in your daily life. This is compassion fatigue, and it can become severe.

When Does Compassion Fatigue Occur?

Compassion fatigue usually occurs when dealing with extreme or severe issues. These challenges often put an extra toll on the individual facing them as well as on those helping them get through it.

Some of the most common struggles that can cause compassion fatigue in mental health professionals and helpful loved ones alike include:

  • Talk of suicide or suicide threats from someone you care for
  • Severe depression
  • Helping others cope with death
  • Illness or death or infant or child
  • Facing heavy topics with an excessive workload

Compassion fatigue is more likely to occur if you are already over-exhausted outside of helping someone cope with their struggles. If you are working long hours, not sleeping, or going through something yourself, you are at a much higher risk of facing compassion fatigue as well.

When compassion fatigue begins to affect your work or responsibilities outside of caring for someone, you know it is becoming a severe issue. It is best to take some time before it gets to this point and address it.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

We are all familiar with feelings of burnout. These feelings may stem from school, work, or just life in general. This is similar to how compassion fatigue may feel. Many of us are also familiar with the feeling of your social battery being depleted. You may also feel exhausted after talking about the same thing with the same person over and over again. This is also how compassion fatigue may feel, depending on the person or the situation.

There are a lot of possible signs of compassion fatigue, and this may look different for everyone depending on the situation. In general, here are a couple of signs of compassion fatigue:

  • Feeling Hopeless/Helpless
  • Feeling Powerless
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Being Easily Upset or Constantly Upset
  • Feeling Numb
  • Snapping at those around you
  • Not Caring About Anything
  • Not Enjoying Things You Usually Would
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Exhaustion
  • Feeling Like You’re Drowning

Compassion fatigue may look different in everyone because we all cope with emotions, feelings, and situations a little bit differently. If you are starting to feel emotionally drained in situations outside of offering care to an individual in need, it may be time to address your compassion fatigue.

How To Prevent Compassion Fatigue

There isn’t always an effective way to prevent compassion fatigue. Sometimes just being aware of you and your emotions can be enough to help prevent these feelings of burnout and complete exhaustion from consuming you.


Education is a powerful tool when it comes to struggling with any form of mental illness. Educating yourself on emotions you may feel, signs of struggling, coping mechanisms, and what to do if it escalates is one of the best ways to help prevent compassion fatigue (and any mental illness, for that matter).

It is often said that “knowledge is power,” and in this case, it is true. Being educated won’t necessarily give you the power to prevent compassion fatigue, but it can help you be equipped to cope with it and be aware of the signs.

Practice Self-Care

Taking time for yourself should never be overlooked. Like on an airplane, the pilot tells you to place your oxygen mask on your face before helping others in case of an emergency. If you become incapacitated, you won’t be able to help anyone around you. Self-care is drastic to our well-being, and should never be overlooked.

Taking time for yourself allows you to help others more effectively. Everyone’s self-care practices look a little different, and there are a lot of ideas of what is best. Check out this great resource for some gift ideas for yourself or others to help encourage self-care.

Set & Respect Boundaries

An important aspect of life is learning to set boundaries. These boundaries may refer to physical boundaries, but it refers to emotional boundaries more often than not. Boundaries also often refer to respecting that everything has a time and place.

Setting boundaries between school, work, and home is imperative to taking care of your mental health. An important part of being a caregiver is leaving those responsibilities when you leave the person you care for. Leaving the emotions, feelings, and responsibilities there and not bringing them home will make a huge difference.

It is also important to set boundaries regarding your time. Time is a resource that we never get back, so respect that everything has a time and place and when it is over, leave it there, and move on. Setting and respecting these boundaries is a lot easier said than done, but can be very helpful in preventing compassion fatigue.

Utilize a Personal Therapist

Meeting with a therapist is never a weakness. Even if you care for friends or family and see yourself as “strong” or “having it together,” meeting with someone to receive help for yourself will always make a difference in encouraging your positive mental health.

Regularly meeting with a therapist can provide you with techniques to cope with burnout, stress, compassion fatigue, and offers you a chance to talk through your worries. Having this safe outlet often helps prevent compassion fatigue, and it is also a fantastic way to work through and overcome compassion fatigue.

If you have questions about therapists, please contact us.

Additional Ideas

Some more ideas of how to prevent compassion fatigue include:

  • Build a support network
  • Take regular breaks
  • Build emotional resilience
  • Journal
  • Exercise/Stay Active
  • Do things you love

Compassion fatigue, mental challenges, and burnout are real, and many will struggle at times. Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.

At Jackson House, we want to help you. No matter your situation, there is help at Jackson House. Contact us if you have any questions.

It's time to feel better

We are here to help and we are in-network with most insurance providers. Call us for a free and confidential consultation.

If you’re a provider and need to send us information on a client, please feel free to fax us at 619-303-7044. If you need help immediately, call our 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-766-4274. If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Jackson House is licensed by the State of California Community Care Licensing Division and certified by the Department of Health Care Services. We are also CARF Accredited. If you have any client or quality of care concerns, please reach out to us at (888) 255-9280. If your concerns need further attention, you can contact the Department of Public Health at 619-278-3700 or the Community Care Licensing Division at 1-844-538-8766.