Let’s Talk About Compassion Fatigue

Great Lakes Psychology Group

What is compassion fatigue?

Psychotherapists tend to have a deep capacity for empathy and compassion, powerful tools which allow them to help their clients through painful experiences. This capacity also leaves therapists susceptible to compassion fatigue, sometimes referred to as secondary trauma.

According to the American Institute of Stress, compassion fatigue is defined as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events”.

Is compassion fatigue a misnomer?

There is some disagreement about the appropriateness of the term “compassion fatigue”, as some professionals believe it is actually the continual outpouring of empathy, not compassion, that leads helping professionals to the point of exhaustion and depression.

Compassion is the desire to help alleviate the suffering of another – it has boundaries built into it as it delineates the self from the other. Empathy, however, allows us to actually imagine the experience of others as if they were happening to us. Through empathy, psychotherapists can easily become overwhelmed by the experiences of others, especially when these experiences are traumatic. 

Who is at risk for empathy fatigue? 

Naturally, psychotherapists seeing clients with high rates of trauma might be more likely to experience empathy fatigue. Further, those with unresolved trauma themselves may be more susceptible to the effects of repeated exposure to trauma. 

Further, therapists with large caseloads may be more at risk, especially if they are working in an unsupportive environment and lack sufficient support networks.

Warning signs of empathy fatigue 

Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include sadness, depression, intrusive thoughts, anger, irritability, anxiety, sleep disturbances and/or nightmares, appetite changes, relationship conflicts, a diminished sense of purpose, low motivation, overworking or poor boundaries between work and personal life, and unhealthy coping patterns.

It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of empathy fatigue and to acknowledge that the nature of your work could be affecting your mental health. Acknowledging this empowers you to take action to seek help and protect yourself from the effects of empathy fatigue.

Strategies for combating empathy fatigue 

Repeated exposure to traumatic experiences can leave you feeling hypervigilant and on edge. Grounding exercises can help to calm the nervous system and bring you back to the here-and-now. 

It’s also important for therapists to remember that they can not erase the painful experiences of their clients. Unrealistic expectations in this regard can put them on the fast track to burnout and empathy fatigue. Practicing self-compassion can be a helpful antidote to self-judgment.

Finally, it’s important to practice healthy boundaries around your work and your clients to protect yourself from exhaustion and other mental health risks. This may include practices like capping your caseload so that you are not over-working yourself, scheduling breaks into your day, setting boundaries and clear expectations around communication outside of session, taking vacations, and nurturing your hobbies, interests, and relationships outside of work.

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