The Impact of Helping: Compassion Fatigue and Tips for Self-Care

Many people feel an inner drive to be involved in the lives of others in a helpful capacity. In these roles, helping others improve their lives requires commitment, energy, and willingness to go an extra step on someone's behalf. Wellspring Counseling staff psychologist, Marya Barey, PhD, helps you identify if you suffer from compassion fatigue and what you can do to reduce symptoms.

It is easy to forget that our own self-care is an essential component of being able to help others. If we are depleted ourselves, we ultimately have less to offer someone else. Over time we can develop "compassion fatigue," a set of symptoms that can affect our health, emotions, thoughts, relationships, behaviors, and even how we feel about the world in general.

Helping roles in any capacity - as a volunteer, a paid professional or even as a family member - are most successful for the recipient and for us if we have good coping skills and if we actively address our own needs to "refill" our storehouse of energy.

Is compassion fatigue a threat for your staff and organization? We can help by bringing you a customized workshop. Learn more.

What are the effects of compassion fatigue? Pay attention to any of the following symptoms you might notice in yourself as a result of your work with others.

Physical effects

  • Headaches
  • Chronic tiredness or a sense of feeling drained
  • Digestive problems
  • Frequent colds or other illnesses
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety/stress symptoms

Emotional effects

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Less enjoyment of pleasant activities
  • Sadness or depression
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Irritability or having a "short fuse"
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Behavioral effects

  • Increased drinking or smoking marijuana
  • Anger outbursts
  • Changes in eating or shopping habits (including on-line shopping)
  • "Surfing" the internet more than you intend to

 Cognitive effects

  • Decreased concentration and focus
  • Impaired memory
  • "Seeing" scary images in your thoughts
  • Nightmares or disrupted sleep patterns

Interpersonal effects

  • Less desire to be with friends or family
  • Impatience with others
  • Increased anxiety in public places
  • Greater need to be in control in order to feel safe

World-view effects

  • Decrease in a sense of basic trust in others and in the world
  • Decreased sense of purpose and meaning in life
  • Feeling ineffective and cynical or negative about life in general

Ways to Prevent Compassion Fatigue and Restore Your Energies

If our work with others can sometimes take a toll on us, what can we do about it? The more we can feel a sense of connection to ourselves, the better. It's helpful to have personal strategies that can help prevent compassion fatigue and aid in restoring your energies. Making time for self-care every day will help you accomplish this.

Our bodies hold a lot of tension when we are stressed, so paying attention to your body's signals of distress is helpful.

  • Move your body - taking a long walk and other moderate exercise is helpful, but even a short walk indoors for a few minutes helps your body release tension
  • Notice how much caffeine (including soda) and alcohol you are drinking and decrease the amount so they don't become problems in your life
  • Take deep, full breaths for a minute several times a day, especially in times of stress
  • Check out information about "mindfulness practices" such as breathing, yoga and meditation and integrate them into your daily life
  • Consider getting a massage on a regular basis
  • Make sure you're sleeping enough, and stop using your cell phone or computer at least 30 minutes before bed every night

Sometimes the way we deal with compassion fatigue is by "closing off" from people, including ourselves, so it's important to reconnect with ourselves and others. Here are some behaviors that can help:

  • Maintain good boundaries between your helping role and the rest of your life
  • Make time for friends and family to engage in enjoyable activities
  • Go on an adventure to a new place you've wanted to go, even if it's just down the street to a new coffee house
  • Increase your sense of play and light-heartedness in your life
  • Allow yourself sufficient "quiet time" to restore
  • Engage in something creative - art, music, movies, reading
  • If you belong to a faith community, spend time with like-minded people who are supportive

Self-awareness is an important component of being in a helping role. Recognize that we all have limitations on what we can do to be helpful and that we cannot individually solve all the problems in the world. Connect with your own sense of personal meaning and allow yourself opportunities to grow. Become aware of unresolved personal issues that might be affecting you. Consider seeking counseling for ongoing self-awareness, resolution of old wounds and increased personal growth.


Source:  Marya Barey, PhD, Licensed Psychologist at Wellspring Counseling, provides workshops to those in helping professions on the subject of Compassion Fatigue.