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What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is most often brought up by those who are in helping professions and other occupations that may involve second-hand exposure to trauma. The FPM Journal published by the American Academy of Family Physicians points out that this condition may lead to burnout symptoms, with serious effects on a person's mental, emotional and physical well-being. The person's exposure to trauma may be first-hand, which is common among physicians, emergency responders and social workers. Exposure may also be secondary such as when professionals become increasingly stressed and preoccupied with the traumatic narratives of clients.

Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout

Burnout is an occupational hazard that anyone may experience in almost any type of job. The symptoms may appear similar, including an escalating sense of frustration and loss of fulfillment with work-related achievements, lack of interest in social interaction and depersonalization where the professional may exhibit symptomatic behavior unrelated to the source of stress. Needless to say, people suffering from burnout or compassion fatigue will manifest with symptoms of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion.

Compassion fatigue is a form of burnout, and the former is more specific as to the extenuating conditions. Compassion fatigue may build up rapidly from onset while burnout conditions become apparent over a longer period. Compassion fatigue conditions could turn into full-blown burnout when the condition is not identified and managed in a timely manner. The good news is that recovery from compassion fatigue is quicker compared to burnout patients as long as therapies and treatments are introduced early.

Description of Symptoms

It is important to understand that compassion fatigue is not a condition that develops overnight. It is not going to be a case where people go to sleep and wake up with a case of compassion fatigue. The symptoms may become noticeable over a period of time. Sleep pattern disruption is one of the first symptoms, and it is a sign that the nervous system is affected. The person may become uncharacteristically emotional, exhibiting a preference for isolation. Cognitive ability may become impaired along with the ability to make sound judgments and empathize appropriately due to loss of control over emotional reactions. Psychosocial needs such as intimacy, trust and self-esteem may become less important as hopelessness and even anger take precedence.

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Prevention and Management of Compassion Fatigue

Psychology Today points out that secondary traumatic stress is a form of post-traumatic stress especially experienced by those in medical professions. The publication cites studies, indicating that close to 87 percent of emergency personnel experience the classic symptoms of compassion fatigue, and 90 percent of new doctors admit that work stress affects their personal relationships.

In high-risk occupations, it is important for professionals to be self-aware and to take preventive measures to minimize compassion fatigue. Self-care strategies should be incorporated into daily routine. These practices include taking appropriate breaks, dissociating from stressful situations as needed and affirming boundaries between work and personal situations. Cultivating a positive attitude that includes a sense of humor, gratefulness and self-confidence will help a person stay focused on maintaining a work-life balance.

Compassion fatigue affects the individual's ability to perform the job efficiently and productively. It may also impact professional and personal relationships as well as overall health and well-being. Working with supportive management, having access to professional help and maintaining a sympathetic social circle helps to keep compassion fatigue at bay.