Do You Have Compassion Fatigue?


Do You Have Compassion Fatigue?

Most of us have heard the term caregiver stress, but compassion fatigue is something more. For those of us who work with people who are suffering, vulnerable, experiencing trauma, pain, and loss, compassion fatigue can take its toll if we don’t recognize and confront it. Often people with Compassion Fatigue can take on the very symptoms of those they are caring for.

Compassion fatigue was first recognized by a Psychologist named Charles Figley, who worked with soldiers on the battlefield in Viet Nam. In hearing their stories and counseling them, he started to feel anxious, questioned his own morals, and noticed his quality of life declining. He was experiencing secondary traumatic stress. Patricia Smith has studied his work and other’s and founded the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. and explains compassion fatigue in a wonderful Ted talk entitled, How to Manage Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving | Patricia Smith | TEDxSanJuanIsland

I found this website, at a time no more poignant for caregivers and health care workers than during the Covid-19 Pandemic, when so many of us have been rendered helpless to save lives and improve the quality of the lives of those who are so vulnerable right now.

In watching and reading about Compassion Fatigue, I recognize now that I, myself suffered from it at one time. I was a Medical Social Worker working on the Oncology Floor of our local hospital, here near Kennebunk, ME. My floor regularly doubled as a surgery floor where many amputations and other traumatic events occurred. I met daily with patients who had lost limbs, had been recently diagnosed with cancer, or were very sick from cancer treatment, and various other patients who were awaiting tests or potential bad news. The patients who were doing well, recovering and going home, rarely needed a Social Worker.

I heard their stories and cared deeply, too deeply perhaps. But I loved my job, I wanted to support people through trauma as I had once been supported. As the years went on though, I became more and more anxious, experienced feelings of helplessness and hopelessness with the enormity of the problems I saw every day. I was so tired, I had unexplained stomach aches and numerous colds, which I chalked up to being surrounded by germs in the hospital setting. It wasn’t until my 16 year old son said to me, “Mom, you are never happy anymore, you are not like you used to be”, that I sought help. I was told that I was suffering from depression and PTSD. I found hard to believe, having never experienced any symptoms of either in my life. I took some time off and immediately felt better, but when I returned it all came right back. I resigned. Had I known what was going on sooner, I might have been able to keep my job and remained healthy. 

The following are some of the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:

  • Wanting to isolate and be alone- We spend so much of our time with others we don’t even want to be with people socially.
  • Emotional outbursts-Because we ignore and suppress our feelings, they have a way of coming out in tears or anger.
  • Physical Ailments- Headache, backache, gastrointestinal issues, lack of sleep, exhaustion, frequent colds and other issues are common.
  • Substance Abuse-Avoiding our feelings with alcohol, drugs, food, etc.
  • Sadness and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
  • Nightmares and flashbacks


Sometimes these symptoms can be felt by an entire organization, such as a nursing home, where the entire staff is subject to compassion fatigue if it is not recognized and addressed by management.


Some of us are more likely to suffer compassion fatigue than others because of our childhoods. If a child grows up in a household with alcoholism, drug abuse, mental or physical abuse or neglect, they are more likely to feel the effects. They may feel responsible to take care of others. They may have a skewed sense of personal boundaries, or feel that it is selfish to put themselves ahead of someone else. They often have some unresolved pain and trauma of their own.

In helping ourselves, we can not only continue to care for the people who need us, but perhaps heal our own wounds in the process!

Ways to heal from Compassion Fatigue:

  • Take time for yourself and put yourself first. You can refer to one of my past blogs, Put the Oxygen Mask on Yourself First.
  • Get some exercise
  • Figure out what hurts or triggers you, and say no to it.
  • Start a spiritual practice. This does not have to be anything traditional. It is whatever gives you peace and joy. Walking in nature, meditation, music, being with animals, dancing, cooking, etc.
  • Practice mindfulness-trying to be mentally present wherever you are and whatever you are doing. This takes practice.
  • Practice gratitude.
  • Most importantly, ask for help.

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For more information, Patricia Smith has written several books on Compassion Fatigue:

To Weep For A Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving

Compassion Satisfaction:: 50 Steps to Healthy Caregiving 1st Edition

Healthy Caregiving: A Guide To Recognizing And Managing Compassion Fatigue - Presenter's Guide Level 1 1st Edition

Healthy Caregiving: A Guide To Recognizing And Managing Compassion Fatigue - Student Guide Level 1 1st Edition


Danielle Bonney McPherson LSW