Compassion Fatigue: When Caring Hurts Too Much

Brain Injury Blog 

Part One — What is Compassion Fatigue? 

by Janet Cromer, RN, MA, LMHC

In Part One of this post I’ll give you some information about compassion fatigue. In Part Two (next week), I’ll explains some good strategies to prevent or treat compassion fatigue.

What is Compassion?

Compassion is a form of deep caring for someone you love or feel close to. When this person is sick or injured you might feel sympathy and sorrow. Compassion goes beyond sympathy to a feeling of sharing their pain and trauma in some way, and wanting to ease their suffering.

Perhaps you’ve heard about burnout. Burnout happens when the physical and emotional demands of caregiving outweigh your energy and resources. Burnout is a response to the circumstances. Compassion fatigue (CF) goes a step beyond burnout. CF is a response to being exposed to, or involved in the suffering of another.

Caregiving for someone who has severe injuries or medical problems can be very stressful. Learning ways to manage the stress and emotional demands can protect your health and help you be a better caregiver.

Compassion Fatigue Basics:

Compassion fatigue is a form of severe stress that comes from caring for a person who is very seriously ill or injured.

The person’s injuries can be physical or psychological. Often there is a combination. What matters is that he/she has been traumatized, and you bear witness to his/her suffering. You may even be responsible for trying to relieve that suffering.

  • You absorb, or take on, the person’s suffering and pain, and can’t get it out of your mind.
  • Compassion fatigue causes physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion.
  • Compassion fatigue can contribute to health problems, emotional distress, and substance abuse.
  • Sometimes, the more you love or care for the sick person, the greater the risk of compassion fatigue. It is important to get plenty of help, respite, and support.
  • Compassion fatigue can also be an opportunity to learn new stress resilience skills. 

Who is at risk for compassion fatigue?

  • A caregiver who already feels burned out but continues to provide care.
  • A caregiver who has a personal history of trauma that hasn’t been resolved.
  • A caregiver who doesn’t have enough help with caring for a person who is in pain, severely disabled, or traumatized by their experiences.  

What are the warning signals of compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue can affect every part of your being. Some signals include:

  • Physical/bodily signals — poor sleep, nightmares, tired all the time, headaches, stomach problems, muscle tension and pain, high blood pressure.
  • Emotional signals — feeling angry, apathetic, sarcastic, depressed, worried all the time, hopeless, helpless, despair, crying, mood swings, or feeling numb and withdrawn. Feeling that your work is never enough. Feeling like you, or the situation, can’t go on like this. If you feel like hurting yourself or the sick person, get emergency help right away.
  • Thinking (cognitive) signals — trouble focusing or concentrating, forgetting important things, overload, not following through, trouble problem solving, negative thinking about everything.
  • Behavioral signals — being mean, avoiding the sick person and friends, blaming and fighting. You might drink, smoke, or eat too much. Or take too much anxiety or pain medication.
  • Spiritual signals — Unable to find meaning or solace in faith traditions you liked before, feeling adrift, feeling like nothing you do is enough. 

Please remember that compassion fatigue is not a failure or weakness on your part. It is a normal response to an extreme situation. Next week, in Part Two, I’ll share strategies to prevent or heal compassion fatigue. 

Reference: Figley, Charles (Ed). Treating Compassion Fatigue. Routledge Psychosocial Stress Series. 2002.

March 29, 2012

5 responses to “Compassion Fatigue: When Caring Hurts Too Much”

  1. […] LMHC. All spouses and caregivers of wounded warriors need to read this. 2 repins Karie is one of the bravest women I know. This is her blog. She began by documenting her […]

  2. Janet Cromer says:

    Hi Ladonna,
    Thank you for your comment. You are wise to take on your important work with the companionship and support of the organization. Trust your intuition about when you need to take a break also. Part two will be up this week.

  3. Janet Cromer says:

    Thank you for your work with these caregivers who shoulder enormous responsibilities Marilyn. It’s important for caregivers to realize that they can develop compassion fatigue after months of stress and vicarious traumatization. It doesn’t take years, so self care and support from others are essential from the beginning.

  4. LaDonna Cutshall says:

    This article is very comforting, yet heart breaking. I am living with compassion fatigue and most likely secondary PTSD. It does feel overwhelming and sometimes hopeless!! I am part of an organzation that is working with combat veterans and their families. It is a Christ based healing program. If it were not for this organization, I don’t think I would be able to deal with this. Thank you for the information. I am looking forward to part two!!

  5. Marilyn Lash says:

    Compassion fatigue can affect so many caregivers. I’ve been working with wives of our wounded warriors and this is a persistent theme expressed by so many of these young women who are mentally and physically exhausted. Thank you for your insights.

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