When Caring Too Much Can Hurt

We hear the term “compassion fatigue” regularly, and many of us can relate to the description: “Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people in distress; it is a state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper,” says Dr. Charles Figley, Director of the Tulane Traumatology Institute.

While compassion fatigue shares some symptoms with burnout, such as emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion, compassion fatigue is always trauma-related, is often unpredictable, and often comes on rapidly. Most often associated with those working in helping professions, many others experience this as they are drawn to help those in their immediate families, their extended families, or their work families, where the cumulative effects of helping or even hearing repeatedly about the intense traumatic situations of others begins to take its toll. At that point, the gift of empathy becomes a curse, resulting in the caregiver taking on the pain, fears, and suffering of others. With the frequent news reports of school shootings and other violence, it is important to monitor our emotional state of being and know what to do to prevent compassion fatigue.

Symptoms to be on the lookout for include:

  • Difficulty functioning in routine tasks;
  • Regularly waking up tired;
  • Feeling of working harder but accomplishing less;
  • Becoming frustrated and irritable more easily;
  • Decision-making is impaired;
  • Poor work/life balance;
  • Feeling of despair;
  • Becoming isolated from others.

Suggestions to help prevent and heal from compassion fatigue:

  • Talk with someone who understands;
  • Exercise regularly/eat properly;
  • Establish a routine schedule of restful sleep;
  • Take some time off;
  • Build a positive support network;
  • Set emotional boundaries;
  • Keep a journal to help process and release emotions;
  • Engage in outside interests/hobbies.

Mother Theresa understood the dangers of compassion fatigue long before the term was coined. She enforced a mandatory year off for her nuns every four to five years to allow them to recover from the effects of their work. It is a very real condition, and recovery requires appropriate self-care measures.