What is Compassion Fatigue? Physical and Emotional Symptoms and How to Address Them  

Compassion Fatigue Symptoms

There are few professions that cause more stress than those in the field of medicine. For the average person, juggling erratic work schedules, large patient loads and overwhelming psychological pressure, can make it difficult to find a moment to relax and keep yourself composed. So what can you do to help manage your stress and avoid compassion fatigue?

Exhausted healthcare workers are more likely to develop compassion fatigue. Not only can this impact a healthcare worker’s performance, but it might also impact how they feel about themselves. While it may seem and feel like a change in disposition, compassion fatigue can be reversed and even prevented. Keep on reading for a few tips on coping with stress in the healthcare workplace.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

There are many reasons to pursue a career as a medical professional, but there’s often one that stands above the rest: the desire to help others. Working with and helping those who have experienced major trauma is an immensely rewarding experience. But what happens when the weight of their trauma begins to affect your emotional state? This is what’s commonly referred to as compassion fatigue.

Put simply, compassion fatigue is when you develop negative feelings about helping other people at work. Sometimes it becomes harder to feel compassion for those you are assisting and feel energized and empowered at work. In addition, compassion fatigue may make you feel reluctant to care and give because you have been exposed to so much of other people’s trauma and suffering. 

Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout

Compassion fatigue includes burnout but has the additional twist of secondary stress from dealing directly with victims of trauma. The origins of burnout and compassion fatigue are different. If someone is suffering from burnout, it is usually from being overworked. If someone has compassion fatigue, they may feel burnt out, but they also have a reduced capacity for empathy as a direct result of their day-to-day work.

Compassion Fatigue Test for Caregivers

Your workplace may provide a formal test for compassion fatigue. Or, you can see if you, or the person you are concerned about, exhibit the following symptoms. 

Physical symptoms of compassion fatigue: 

  • Exhaustion 
  • Headaches 
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Digestive issues 
  • Skin disorders like acne and stress hives

Emotional and mental symptoms of compassion fatigue: 

  • Insomnia 
  • Bad dreams
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 
  • Feeling detached 
  • Social withdrawal
  • Shifting moods 
  • Pessimism and feelings of inadequacy
  • Irritability and anger 

Those with compassion fatigue may also develop substance abuse problems in an attempt to deal with their condition. As a result, they may experience decreased quality of work, and the symptoms may also spread into their personal life. 

How to Avoid Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a serious problem. It’s a constant strain on your personal life, and over time it can begin to affect the quality of your work. Those affected may wall themselves off from their patients, missing important details for helping them through their pain. Fortunately, there are ways to manage it and keep yourself focused on your work:

  • Set stronger boundaries: Be assertive about the boundaries between your personal and professional life. Also, set boundaries with patients and how much you can give them.  
  • Rely on your team: Social support at work and in your personal life is essential to avoiding and reducing compassion fatigue. Receive and get feedback from your peers and supervisor. 
  • Make space for self-care: Focus on unwinding and supporting your own health holistically: mind, body and spirit. 
  • Using mindfulness techniques: Mindfulness can help you handle the trauma you are exposed to. 
  • Take a break from work: When possible, take a break from work. Although, taking a vacation is best, taking one day off can help, and reducing overtime can also be helpful. 
  • Seeking therapy: Professional support can go a long way to protect against and relieve compassion fatigue. 

Manage Your Everyday Stress

Compassion fatigue isn’t the only challenge of a career in medicine. Regular everyday stress is a major issue in the day-to-day life of anyone in this field. Here’s a short list of tips for reducing general stress in the workplace:

  • Identifying triggers: figure out what makes you tick, and don’t let it get the best of you. Be prepared.
  • Take care of your body: exercise and eat healthily—don’t underestimate the effect that physical health has on your levels of stress.
  • Time management: don’t let life become a constant race against the clock—leave earlier and plan ahead.
  • Get organized: do what it takes to keep a level head.
  • Stay positive: an optimistic outlook is key to handling everyday stress.
  • Practice self-care: create quiet time to relax or do something nice for yourself. By you, for you.

Working in Healthcare

Don’t let stress get in the way of the medical career you’ve always wanted. Start the conversation with ABES College today to discover more about our healthcare programs.

Article updated 2023-04-09