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What is Compassion Fatigue and Are You Experiencing It?

by Rebecca Norris

After a year like 2020, it’s safe to say we’ve all learned a thing or two about being more empathetic toward others. For longtime empaths, however, a year filled with unthinkable amounts of unprecedented chaos, sadness, and stress has led to what’s being dubbed compassion fatigue. And, now that the terminology is making its rounds on social media, folks everywhere are curious to know what it is and, more importantly, whether or not it may be what they’re experiencing. 

To gain clarity on the subject, we chatted with NYC-based licensed therapist Risha Nathan, who also happens to be a certified health coach. Ahead, learn everything there is to know about compassion fatigue—including how to overcome it if you’re feeling susceptible to the symptoms.  

What is compassion fatigue?

While the term seems particularly new-wave, Nathan says that it’s a concept that’s been around for years. “Compassion fatigue is sometimes known as second-hand shock or secondary stress reaction,” she shares. “Although similar to symptoms of burnout, compassion fatigue is more related to trauma and how one absorbs the stress of another person’s traumatic experience, rather than a more generic overwhelm that’s associated with burnout.”

Who is most susceptible to compassion fatigue?

According to Nathan, people who put a large emphasis on helping and being present for others—whether personally (as a friend or family member) or professionally (as a therapist or help-oriented professional)—often are most at risk for developing symptoms of compassion fatigue. 

“[These people] take on a huge emotional burden due to the nature of holding space for those who are struggling,” she says, noting that caretakers are a particularly susceptible group to compassion fatigue. “They often get caught in a bind of wanting to help and support those around them, while also feeling overwhelmed by the emotional and physical load it can take.”

The Most Common Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

The problem with compassion fatigue is that, more often than not, its symptoms mimic those of other illnesses and mental health issues. With that in mind, Nathan says it's important to keep an eye out for the following symptoms, which could all point toward compassion fatigue.

  • Isolation
  • Insomnia
  • General feelings of fatigue
  • Feeling burdened by the emotions of others
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of pleasure in activities
  • Depersonalization

How to Overcome Compassion Fatigue 

“Being aware of compassion fatigue [and its symptoms] is the best way to combat it,” Nathan says. “It’s important to step away in times of emotional or physical struggle to be able to take time to heal and repair.”

As far as how to do so, Nathan says that making the time and engaging in activities that bring you joy is key—that and having an outlet and support system to help navigate the feelings and symptoms of compassion fatigue. 

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Rebecca Norris