Compassion Fatigue…Are you running on empty?

. Charles Figley has studied the subject of Compassion Fatigue since the 1970’s. In his words, Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it is traumatizing for the helper.

Most of us grew up thinking that grief was the emotion that we experienced after the death of someone who touched our lives.  In truth, grief is something we feel whenever we are forced to deal with any unexpected or unwanted change in our daily living.  When we have anything that hits us emotionally, in a less than positive way, feelings of grief can be generated.

Sadly, most of us have been taught to discount our feelings of sadness and suppress them.  That does not make them go away!  Instead, we hold them deep inside, never realizing how they impact our vitality.  Instead of processing those feelings, we continue to hold them inside and they accumulate over our lifetime.  The more we accumulate these painful feelings in our hearts, the less room we have for true happiness!

People in caregiving fields, who do not practice self-care, are the most susceptible. This includes people in the medical, veterinarian, social services, counseling fields, first responders, grief recovery professionals, and funeral service personnel to name but a few. If they continually internalize the problems of those they are trying to help, compassion fatigue may result. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Network has stated this simply as “Caring too much can hurt.”

“Research shows that during intense caregiving periods, caregivers not only experience high levels of stress, they also cannot find the time and energy to look after their own health,” says Kathrin Boerner, Ph.D., a bereavement researcher, and professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

You might think that the easiest way to prevent compassion fatigue is to keep yourself emotionally detached from your work. Most of us in caregiving fields were taught to keep our “professional distance.” We are taught the value of empathetic listening, but what is often forgotten in the equation is that to show and feel empathy doesn’t mean that you must take on other people’s issues as your own. One of the keys to preventing this is to keep your goal in mind: Provide the necessary care in a loving manner. The key to not falling prey to compassion fatigue is to know the symptoms and take action for self-care.

What are the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue?

On a physical level, symptoms may include:

  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • General constriction
  • Bodily temperature changes
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting spells
  • Impaired hearing

On a psychological level, symptoms can include:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nightmares
  • Feeling powerless


As a professional, you know these are the same common symptoms that our body exhibits when a person is overwhelmed with the emotions associated with grief. When you sense that you are experiencing these symptoms, it is time for you to take action for yourself. Self-care is not selfish. Self-care is essential and the healthy thing to do.

If you find that you are suffering from these symptoms, your body is telling you to take action for yourself. Many scholarly resources indicate that many who fail to take action are candidates for “burn out” in their career fields. Taking the same recovery actions for yourself that you recommend to those who seek your assistance is essential. You must remember to “practice what you preach!” Exercising, spending time in nature, getting enough sleep, and talking to loved ones can help with physical and mental health. Another useful practice for helping to ground yourself when feelings overwhelmed is to connect to the soothing rhythm of the breath.  Inhaling deeply and exhaling fully will help to bring relaxation and calmness.

Self-Care Involves our Emotional Wellbeing

Emotional, as well as physical, self-care is essential to easing complications of grief and boost recovery. You may want to get a copy of The Grief Recovery Handbook. by James & Friedman. It’s a heartfelt conversation on why loss and grief hurt so much. The most recent edition of the book provides specific direction, in the last two chapters, for dealing with losses that might relate to compassion fatigue. The section on Trauma and PTSD is likely to be the most useful. It is in taking these relatively simple, but emotional, action steps that you can move out from under the shadow of all of that pain that you have carried inside for so long, and live a happier and fulfilled emotional life.

For information on a free Self-Care for Serenity Workshop or for a free Discovery Call about The Grief Recovery Method® go to or call 865-963-9221.