What is compassion fatigue and what are the symptoms?

October 16, 2020 4 mins read
What is compassion fatigue and what are the symptoms?

Compassion fatigue is an emotional and mental reaction to tragic events. It is prevalent among healthcare professionals and was brought to global attention in 2020 due to its effect on the frontline health workers battling the Covid-19 virus. The impact of seeing patients fall ill and succumbing to the virus leads to feelings of stress and trauma as healthcare professionals process the life-changing and often painful circumstances of others.

Compassion fatigue isn’t only limited to the medical field, it can also affect anyone who has had first-hand experience with another person’s trauma. Seeing a loved one battle a chronic illness at home or living with a person who is battling a debilitating mental illness like dementia can also result in compassion fatigue. The heartbreaking and tragic visuals you see on social media, TV, and radio can contribute – and exacerbate – this type of fatigue.

So, once triggered, how you can deal with it?

What is compassion fatigue?

According to compassionfatigue.org, it is a ‘broadly defined concept that can include emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another. It is associated with caregiving where people or animals are experiencing significant emotional or physical pain and suffering.’

Also known as second-hand shock or secondary traumatic stress (STS), compassion fatigue is sometimes confused with burnout as it takes longer to show up physically, emotionally and mentally. Unlike burnout, however, compassion fatigue is highly treatable.

What are the symptoms?

If you’ve been wondering if you have any symptoms associated with compassion fatigue, then you can take this professional quality of life questionnaire which can help you figure out where you stand on the compassion satisfaction/fatigue sphere. The survey was created by Dr Beth Hundall Stamm, a specialist in traumatic stress studies.

The following signs are usually characteristic of compassion fatigue:

Difficulty concentrating

When taken into account with other compassion fatigue symptoms, battling to stay focused on one task or not being able to concentrate on an activity can be telltale signs. Your mind might wander or you may feel demotivated and unable to complete tasks.

Intrusive imagery

Images of people in distress or traumatic events can pop up in your thoughts. Usually, you could find it tough to think of more positive things because your mind may be fixated on the trauma you experienced and process this back to you visually.

Feeling hopeless

Because you have seen and emotionally dealt with another person’s pain or suffering, the feeling that you can’t do anything to help them might haunt you. You may feel helpless and hopeless to do anything or to change the situation. This feeling of hopelessness can also spill over into your personal life, making it difficult, to summon the energy you need to go on with your daily life.

Exhaustion and irritability

Have you felt moody and irritable? Do you feel tired all the time, even after you’ve taken some time out to rest or sleep in? Combined with other symptoms like intrusive imagery and nausea, struggling to find the energy and motivation to do everyday tasks could be a sign of compassion fatigue.

Difficulty sleeping

Staying up all night, falling asleep for short periods of time and not sleeping at all accompany the major symptoms of compassion fatigue. When bedtime rolls around, finding sleep can feel like an impossible feat, leaving you exhausted and unmotivated in the morning because you couldn’t get a good night’s rest.


The feeling of wanting to bring up your food can be accompanied by headaches and dizziness. People who have compassion fatigue have complained of regular feelings of nausea which can be intensified by stress.

How to deal with compassion fatigue?

To manage your symptoms of compassion fatigue, you need to put yourself first. You can do this by following a self-care routine, learning a new hobby, prioritising exercise, and expressing your feelings through journaling. Guided meditation before bed can also help you gain more rest, relax and soothe your anxieties.

Some of the benefits of a solid, consistent self-care routine are that it can relieve symptoms of bad memories, emotional turmoil, physical ailments, loneliness and feeling sad and frustrated.

Ultimately, don’t be too hard on yourself. Some situations are out of your control. By looking after yourself first (so that you can look after others), you’re doing your best to make the world a better place.