Soldier doing yoga outdoors

What is Compassion Faitgue and why should you know about it?

Written By: Samantha Eddy

Compassion is a normal response many of us experience when we see another person suffering. This natural response is also vital to our survival. Studies suggest that compassion is crucial to the evolution of the human species (Seppala, 2016), and that helping behaviors can even help you live longer (Post, 2005)! But can you exhaust your supply of compassion?

The Origins of Compassion Fatigue

Registered nurse Carol Joinson first coined the term compassion fatigue in 1992, when she started to recognize helplessness and anger dominating her and her coworkers’ emotions. Since that time, dozens of studies have explored what compassion fatigue is and who it can affect. Compassion fatigue can affect anyone in the helping industry, including caregivers of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (Singh et al, 2018), hospice nurses (Barnett & Ruiz, 2018), health care workers bereaving patient death (Allie et al., 2018), mental health clinicians (Figley, 1995; Figley & Ludvick, 2017), spouses or family members of veterans (Figley & Ludvick, 2017), veterinarians, first responders, and even attorneys who work with traumatized individuals.

Compassion fatigue is conceptualized as a state of exhaustion and mental weariness resulting from the personal desire, as well as demand from helping professions, to be compassionate to other human beings. Burnout, secondary (vicarious) trauma, and traumatic triggering all play a role in how an individual develops compassion fatigue. Signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue can appear affectively (emotionally), cognitively, behaviorally, relationally, spiritually, and/or somatically (within the body).  

Before we dive into how to understand signs of compassion fatigue in your own life, let’s first take a moment to understand a prerequisite of compassion fatigue and compassion satisfaction: empathy.

Understanding Empathy’s Role

Empathy is an innate, human trait that allows us to “enter the world of others” (Walker & Alligood, 2001). When we experience empathy, we first have an unconscious emotional or physical response to another person’s experience.  When we see another person crying, we feel the urge to cry. We then become aware of that response and are cognitively aware of our reaction in relation to the other person’s experience. We are aware of our urge to cry. We next “place ourselves in the shoes” of the other person, allowing us to take their perspective and try to understand why they feel the way they feel. We then make a decision consciously to respond to the other person’s pain.

This conscious empathetic experience is what allows us to thrive in relationships. However, like anything else, too much of one thing can become overwhelming. Our cup can overflow, and we can become fatigued and weary, thus disrupting the present-centered process of sitting with and being empathetic with another person. We become less able to be conscious and aware of our own reactions in relation to the other person’s experience. This disruption of consciousness in the processing of empathy is what leads to compassion fatigue.

Turning Compassion Fatigue into Compassion Satisfaction

The first step in reducing compassion fatigue is identifying your own signs and symptoms. Are you experiencing any of the following?

  • Feeling “keyed up” or on edge
  • Cynical thoughts
  • Social isolation
  • Anger towards God
  • Loss of compassion
  • Worried you’re not doing enough for your client (s)
  • Apathy
  • Hopelessness
  • Guilt
  • Impulsive aggression
  • Blaming others
  • Nausea, headaches, dizziness, fainting spells
  • Dreaming about your client(s) traumatic experiences
  • Lateness and absenteeism
  • Loss of meaning and purpose
  • Shallow breathing and tense shoulders

Next is identifying the factors that might lead to compassion fatigue. Having a difficult client population, poor boundaries, lack of social support from superiors and colleagues, long hours with few resources and stress-exacerbating lifestyle choices are all factors that can lead to compassion fatigue. On the opposite side of that, studies have shown that having clinical supervision, emotional separation, increased years of experience, social support and self-care strategies are vital in maintaining or reaching Compassion Satisfaction (Rich, 1997; Chrestman, 1999; Follette, Polusny, & Millbeck, 1994; Badger et al., 2008; Cunningham; Schauben & Frazier, 1995; Craig & Sprang, 2010).

Compassion Satisfaction is the pleasure helping professionals derive from doing their work effectively (Stamm, 2010).  Whether you think you are experiencing compassion fatigue or are experiencing Compassion Satisfaction, prevention and treatment are all part of thriving in your career. Some of the tools that research have found to be effective as self-care and as treatment for stress include loving-kindness meditation (Hoge et al.), gratitude practices (Lanham 2012), training on mindfulness (Brooker et al. 2013), and Yoga-based Stress Management (YBSM) (Riley et al. 2017), among others.

Veterans Yoga Project is offering a chance to explore these topics in much more depth as well as providing self-care tools in an upcoming webinar. As funded by the Dakota Foundation, the webinar will help individuals increase compassion satisfaction and manage compassion fatigue. The webinar will be available in 2018 and will be offered for CEUs. This webinar will not only offer education about the nature of compassion fatigue, but offer chances to identify specific stressors, and use self-regulatory tools so that those in the field of trauma can find compassion satisfaction in their work once more.

Learn more about Compassion Fatigue and your personal or professional life with our Mindful Resilience for Compassion Fatigue course.

Bio: Samantha Eddy is a 200-Registered Yoga Teacher currently studying at Pacifica Graduate Institute earning her PhD. in Depth Psychology with a Specialization in Somatic Studies and Military Trauma. Samantha has been a volunteer with VYP for over three years, working as a research assistant within the Compassion Fatigue team and providing monthly program evaluation reports.