What is Compassion Fatigue?

First written about in the late 1980s by American Traumatologist, Charles Figley, Compassion Fatigue is the “inevitable consequence of being immersed every day in other people’s trauma and suffering”.  When you witness another person’s suffering your nervous system assumes that this ‘trauma’ is also happening to you and so initiates the flight and fight response. You can do neither as your job is to stay calm and cope, so you repress the feelings and carry on. However, the physical and emotional reaction does not go away and unless you deal with these feelings they build up over time leading to the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue.

What are the symptoms?

In many ways, the symptoms mirror those of the people or animals you are trying to help. These include feelings of acute anxiety, being unable to rest or relax and feeling that you need to be at work all the time as you are the only one who is capable of doing the job well. It can also manifest itself as feeling constantly irritable and short tempered, unable to sleep or feeling very withdrawn and detached. Your immune system is also affected by the constant stress, so some people experience multiple minor illnesses or constant headaches and back pain.

"The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet"

Dr. Naomi Rachel Remen, Professor of Integrative Medicine - University of California 

Why haven’t I heard about it?

Because this is the dark side of caring and until recently has been ignored or rarely talked about as if talking about it will somehow make it worse. But even though they don’t know what it is called; everyone who works in a role that involves being exposed to the suffering of others knows exactly what effect this has on them and their colleagues.

What are the effects?

Compassion Fatigue has a very profound impact on your work and home life. It can leave you feeling constantly anxious and stressed, short tempered and lacking in empathy or switched off and detached. It also affects your physical and emotional health which can prevent you from doing your job that you were once so passionate about.

Who is at risk of Compassion Fatigue?

Anyone! If your job is to help people or animals in distress, you will experience the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue at some point in your career. Even the most emotionally resilient people will have times in their lives when the emotional impact of their jobs will have a profound effect on them.

Some of the occupations that are most at risk of Compassion Fatigue include:

  • Medical and nursing staff

  • Lawyers/solicitors/allied legal staff

  • Emergency services personnel – ambulance/fire/police/coastguard/RNLI

  • Social workers

  • Other care staff – e.g. physiotherapists/occupational therapists/speech therapists

  • Animal welfare staff

  • Teachers and teaching assistants

  • Religious leaders

  • Prison officers

  • Helpline staff

  • Health care assistants

  • Counsellors

  • Complimentary therapists

  • Funeral directors

  • Charity staff and volunteers

Is it preventable?

It is important to understand that when you work with those in distress you cannot prevent the physical effects of vicarious trauma.

However, it is possible to deal with these effects so that you can greatly reduce or reverse the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue.

Can I recover?

Absolutely and this is what our training is all about!

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