What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is broadly defined as emotional, physical, and spiritual distress found in people who provide care for others. Caregivers often register high levels of compassion fatigue. On a daily basis, these individuals are giving their all in emotionally challenging situations.

When not addressed, compassion fatigue can seriously impair the caregiver’s health. Consequently, it will compromise the care that is being provided as well. Because the caregiver can no longer be as warm and caring because he/she just “doesn’t have it” to give.

The Symptoms

Compassion fatigue generally presents itself as elevated displays of chronic stress. Leading traumatologist J. Eric Gentry suggests that people who are attracted to caregiving often enter the field already displaying symptoms of compassion fatigue.

“Strong identification with helpless, suffering or traumatized people or animals is possibly the motive. It is common for us to hail from a tradition of what is labeled “other-directedness.”

Gentry explains that, “Simply put, we were taught to care for the needs of those around us before caring for our own needs. Authentic, sustainable daily self-care practices have been absent from our lives.”

The path to wellness begins with the small but profound step of awareness. This heightened awareness can lead to critical insights regarding one’s past traumas and painful situations that are continuously being relived over and over again through the caregiver’s symptoms and behaviors.

Signs of the more common symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Feeling burdened by the suffering of others

  • Isolating yourself

  • Loss of pleasure in life

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Insomnia

  • Increased nightmares

  • Feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, or being disconnected

  • Overeating

  • Excessive use of drugs or alcohol

  • Poor self-care

  • Physical or emotional exhaustion (or both)

  • Reduced feelings of sympathy or empathy

  • Feeling irritable, angry, or anxious

  • Headaches

  • Reduced sense of accomplishment or meaning in caregiving

  • Problems in personal relationships

The Fine Art of Subduing Compassion Fatigue

Similar to other stress-related maladies such as burnout, compassion fatigue is not terminal. But it can extract a heavy toll on the caregiver’s quality of life. Through awareness and healthy self-care, those who experience compassion fatigue can start to understand the complexity of the emotions they’ve been juggling and, most likely, suppressing.

For those who find themselves plagued by compassion fatigue, here’s what to do:

1. Eliminate Language Detours

Repeating the mantra for educators and therapists to be “resilient” can be harmful. Because it implies that teachers and clinicians should be able to take upon themselves unmanageable workloads or deliberately brush aside symptoms of burnout. “Language Detours” such as this either mask, dismiss or ignore signs of compassion fatigue.

And these “Language Detours” can take on a life of their own as they spread from staff to students, potentially instigating burnout amongst the students. For example, teachers and therapists, rather than addressing mental-health struggles, may become more comfortable encouraging students to “build resiliency” instead.

The pain-hierarchy language like “their pain is worse,” “they need me more,” or “do it for the kids,” reinforces unhealthy martyr mindsets. If these terms and the ideas behind them are not eliminated, they only serve to feed the cycle of compassion fatigue, and may become the harbinger of more serious physical and mental health issues.

2. Honoring Teacher and Therapist Well-Being

Teachers and therapists are generally celebrated for their fabulous achievements that are often the result of toxic work habits. How often is an educator or therapist who works contracted hours heralded? While they also give their all to students, they are rarely acknowledged for their unspectacular but critical successes.

Administrators can gradually change this problematic narrative by celebrating educators and therapists who make positive mental-health choices. Why not publicly recognize teachers and therapists who engage in mindfulness, practice appropriate self-care, and invest in their well-being on their own time?

3. Integrate the Language of Compassion Fatigue and Healing

Expecting teachers and therapists to be upbeat and positive, at times can backfire. Instead of responding to teachers who express their struggles, with “look on the bright side,” “it could be worse,” or “don’t be so negative,” validate them. While encouraging, this encouragement can be deceptive because it presumes that thinking positive thoughts alone can cure compassion fatigue.

But there is another problem with this approach as well. Such language muzzles teachers and therapists. They are made to feel that by expressing concerns they will be labeled “negative” or “a complainer.”

Schools should do just the opposite. They should educate teachers and therapists as to how to recognize compassion fatigue, and allow for the space to monitor symptoms, report their concerns, and seek the help they need in order to heal.

4. Make Self-Care a Priority

Contrary to what many may believe, self-care isn’t a luxury but rather is essential for teachers and therapists to protect against compassion fatigue, and help them to continue to give everything they can to their students.

While some may see taking time for themselves as selfish, neglecting to do so will definitely become apparent when working with the students.

5. Write in a Journal

Many caregivers have found journaling to be an effective stress reduction technique. Getting thoughts and feelings down on paper can be very therapeutic. It helps to process thoughts and emotions, and sometimes is helpful in finding solutions to challenges or making tough decisions. It’s free, has no time limits, and can be done anywhere.

The Game Changer

Of all the reasons given for leaving the teaching profession during the pandemic, stress was cited the most often. It wasn’t about money, respect, or pending retirement. Unfortunately, as secondary trauma and burnout increase, the bottomless pit of compassion fatigue isn’t far behind.

The calls that many teachers and therapists hear from their superiors to exercise “self-care” or administrators to “be resilient,” while well-meaning, are often superficial and don’t address the core issues, nor acknowledge the crucial healing process.

Compassion fatigue can’t be cured by cutting meetings short, offering some encouraging words, or assigning shorter hours. Rather, teachers and therapists need to be shown how to identify symptoms, connect with effective resources, and be included in re-designing toxic workloads.