What is compassion fatigue?

Charles McCarthy
What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is considered a type of stress resulting from the relationship of therapeutic help, empathy and emotional commitment. This term makes visible a reality that specifically affects professionals who work with the aim of alleviating suffering in the lives of the people they serve, apart from being vulnerable to other types of stress or wear and tear from work.

It is the stress generated by being in contact with patients who are in a state of deep pain: understanding this as physical, psychological, social and spiritual suffering and that they require deep care.


  • Background
  • When compassion fatigue appears
  • The key is in empathy
  • Signs that characterize compassion fatigue
    • Cognitive:
    • Emotional:
    • Somatic:
    • Labor:


"Compassion Fatigue" or "empathy burnout" is a recent concept that was introduced in 1995 in the area of ​​health by Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University (New Orleans). He observed that health professionals (nurses, therapists, social workers, etc.), who worked with traumatized people in the area of ​​mental health, over time came to experience indirectly the effects of the trauma they suffered. the people they assisted or cared for; For this reason, this concept has been included and developed in various studies on trauma.

When compassion fatigue appears

Compassion fatigue appears abruptly and acutely, and is characterized by three groups of symptoms very similar to those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder suffered by patients or people with trauma.

  1. Re-experiencing (reliving, remembering with great emotional charge).
  2. Avoidance and mental dullness (attitudes of both physical and emotional distancing from people, not just patients).
  3. Hyperarousal or hyperarousal (state of tension, permanent alertness and reactivity)

Compassion fatigue is the end result of a progressive and cumulative process that is caused by prolonged, continuous, and intense contact with patients, self-use, and exposure to stress..

It develops from a state of discomfort, which if not resolved through adequate rest, leads to stress that exceeds endurance levels, and ultimately becomes compassion fatigue..

Compassion fatigue is a state, where the compassionate energy that is expended overcomes its restorative processes and the power of recovery is lost. All these states manifest themselves with marked physical, social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual changes that progressively increase in intensity..

Many psychological emotions or stress were associated with compassion fatigue, either as a causative or consequential factor. Figley indicated that compassion fatigue is a phenomenon that occurs due to poor self-care, unresolved past trauma, inability or refusal to control stressors, and lack of job satisfaction..

The key is in empathy

Empathy is a key variable word to understand the picture: the skill that gives quality to the intervention is the one that increases the vulnerability to wear out.

The human brain is structured with an innate ability to transcend the boundaries of the skin of its own body. The neurobiological mechanisms involved in the empathic process suggest that it is triggered by imitation mechanisms that make the observer appear similar sensations to those observed.

It is speculated that the emotional impact of hearing traumatic stories could be transmitted through deep or unconscious psychological processes within the levels of compassion and empathy that the professional and caregiver possess; therefore, Compassion Fatigue appears as a result of providing high levels of energy and compassion to those who suffer, and not seeing results of improvement in the sick person cared for, helped or assisted.

Somehow I feel in myself what another person feels, and when the emotions to which a person is exposed are of deep suffering, the impact is evident..

Signs that characterize compassion fatigue


  • Attention and memory difficulties
  • Relive the trauma
  • Shaking of beliefs
  • Perception of vulnerability
  • Distrust
  • Decrease in enjoyable and fun leisure activities
  • Isolation from family and friends


  • Experience of intense fear, sadness and anger, which can lead to vulnerability
  • Hopelessness
  • Loss of joy and happiness


  • Reactions typical of hyperactivity, of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (palpitations, gastrointestinal complaints, constipation, headaches)
  • Diffuse pain due to muscle tension
  • Tiredness and / or feeling that tiredness is not restorative
  • In the case of women, exacerbation of menstrual discomfort


  • Perception of poor professional training
  • Tendency to direct the intervention towards areas not related to suffering
  • Isolation from the rest of the team, feeling of misunderstanding
  • Absenteeism and sick leave

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