Compassion Fatigue Definition – Psychology

Compassion fatigue (sometimes known as secondary traumatic stress “STS”) can be defined as a type of condition that normally impacts people that work with trauma victims, patients in psychiatric wards or first responders in accidents wherein there is a gradual “lessening” so to speak of that individual’s capacity to express compassion (Jacobson et al., 2013).

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Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue (Warning Signs)

The following are the symptoms normally associated with compassion fatigue:


The feeling of hopelessness for individuals impacted by compassion fatigue is a result of depression. Thomas (2013) delves more into this issue by explaining that constant exposure to the pain and misery of others can hurt a person’s mental state. This often results in them developing a decidedly negative outlook on life due to the impact of their environment. Thomas (2013) states that the environment one finds themselves in can affect their psychological state, whether in a positive or negative fashion. This is one of the reasons why there has been a trend of positive reinforcement and commendation within various medical institutions at the present since this helps to create an intrinsic feeling of accomplishment which in turn makes a person feel happy. On the other end of the spectrum, an environment that promotes feelings of sadness, depression, and anxiety can have an extrinsically negative impact on an individual resulting in them becoming more withdrawn, stressed, and become more susceptible to emotional outbursts (Thomas, 2013). This creates a negative outlook on life in general, which results in the feeling of hopelessness.

General decrease in the experience of pleasure

In such instances an individual feels “numb” which studies such as those by Perry et al. (2010) explain is the effect of an automatic process within the brain. Automatic processes can be described as the result of long term behavioral “lessons” in which a person has been taught to think and act in a particular fashion. As such, since biases are developed based on long term learned behavior, it can be stated that automatic thinking processes are more prominent in affecting how individuals feel or perceive external stimuli.

In the case of compassion fatigue, Perry et al. (2010) describes it as a subtle “rewiring” of the brain wherein due to the successive traumas and distress that a person experiences on a daily basis as a result of their job, their brain attempts to cope with the influx of negative stimuli by “deadening” its impact. This was noted by Perry et al. (2010) in their examination of various nurses and first responders wherein the area of the brain normally associated with emotional states as well as pleasure had lower neuron firing levels as compared to other areas of the brain. Chemical signals to these areas were also similarly affected resulted in lower levels of responsiveness. Slocum-Gori et al. (2013) relate such a process to that of trauma victims or people that received extreme emotional distress (i.e., victims of physical or psychological abuse) wherein to cope with the trauma they received, the brain in effect attempts to actively block such memories from surfacing.

The same process, Slocum-Gori et al. (2013) explains, occurs in the case of compassion fatigue resulting in a deadening of the areas associated with compassion which also happens to impacts other senses and areas of the brain associated with emotional states. In this case, the ability to experience pleasure is affected due to what can only be described as a “spill over” effect wherein a “deadening” in one area of the brain affects other areas as well (Perry et al., 2010).

Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety as a result of compassion fatigue is often a result of negative intrinsic effects of the stimuli received from stressors encountered while working. These stressors can take the form people dying, seeing grievous physical injuries, being privy to scenes of horrific murders, or hearing stories of physical and mental abuse. Zerach (2013) presents that notion that the manifestation of the mind’s need to create a state of harmony results in the form of cognitive dissonance which manifests itself as stress and anxiety within a person. This theoretical concept has its basis on the fact that people, in general, are creatures of habit and, as such, they tend to seek a certain degree of consistency in their lives and daily behaviors.

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It is based on this that when an individual is presented with a new social situation or idea, they tend to focus on previously learned social behavior in order satisfy the dissonance that they are presented with (Zerach, 2013). In this case, stress and anxiety act as a means of discouraging the behavior that created dissonance within the body with the act of “resistance” in the form of constantly working resulting in depression since a person is working against what his body believes would be positive action (i.e., to stop working completely).


Sleeplessness in the case of compassion fatigue is often the result of both depression and anxiety wherein the problems experiences in the workplace impact the quality of life at home. Lynch & Lobo (2012) elaborates more on this issue by explaining that the chemical imbalance in the brain which can come about through significant stress and anxiety, as well as depression, can impact a person’s ability to speak. Combined with the “nightmares” that such individuals report, this can result in being unable to sleep properly.

Constant Negative Attitudes towards work and their personal life

In the case of negative attitudes towards work and personal life, this is usually the result of intrinsic dissatisfaction over a worker’s current emotional state brought about by the stress of their job and the depressing nature of their work environment (Craig & Sprang, 2010).

Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Needs of the Caregiver

The physical needs

The physical needs of a caregiver come in the form of being properly rested, taking care of one’s physical needs within an appropriate time (i.e. eating properly, and making sure that one’s own body is not neglected in the line of duty (Neville & Cole, 2013).

The emotional needs

The emotional needs of a caregiver come in the form of overcoming the general feeling of helplessness one feelings when caring for those who suffer (Neville & Cole, 2013). All too often the emotions of people tend to mirror those around them and if someone is constantly exposed to those who are suffering, this in turn can cause them to suffer. The best way of dealing with this is to developing some means of emotional acceptance or even a method of “escape” after work is over whether in the form of friends or family so as to ensure a balance of emotions between happiness and depression.

The spiritual needs

The spiritual needs of a caregiver often come in the form of being at peace with one’s self. It is often the case that constant exposure to those suffering can result in internal turmoil and, as such, it is necessary to find some measure of peace in order to prevent such feelings from overwhelming you (Neville & Cole, 2013).

Coping Strategies

Developing Awareness

Coetzee & Klopper (2010) states that one of the main problems when dealing with compassion fatigue is a simple lack of awareness that a person suffers from it. Coetzee & Klopper (2010)explains that nurses, EMTs, doctors, psychologists and people in other “at risk” professions normally believe that they are “above” getting compassion fatigue or that they are an exception to the rule given their medical training and history. This often results in undiagnosed cased of compassion fatigue resulting in a gradual decline of the work ethic and psychological well being of the sufferer. The result is often a constant depressive state which can hurt their job performance, which can result in adverse consequences for their patients or those under their care.

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Taking this into consideration, it is important for those in a risk profession to develop the necessary awareness regarding compassion fatigue and to admit when they have a problem. Awareness, in this case, can come in the form of developing the necessary insights regarding events, traumas and various disheartening situations that they experienced throughout their career and determine whether such events have resulted in them developing a negative outlook towards both the act of caring for people as well as their careers in general. It is only when sufficient awareness has been developed that developing a means for coping with compassion fatigue can start.

Find a means of escape

This strategy focuses on not making work the center of your life. This means that outside of work, a person needs hobbies to take the stress off of what they feel at work so that they can forget about it and let their body and mind rest.

Reference List

Coetzee, S., & Klopper, H. C. (2010). Compassion fatigue within nursing practice: Aconcept analysis. Nursing & Health Sciences, 12(2), 235-243. Web.

Craig, C. D., & Sprang, G. G. (2010). Compassion satisfaction, compassion fatigue, and burnout in a national sample of trauma treatment therapists. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 23(3), 319-339. Web.

Jacobson, J. M., Rothschild, A., Mirza, F., & Shapiro, M. (2013). Risk for Burnout and Compassion Fatigue and Potential for Compassion Satisfaction Among Clergy: Implications for Social Work and Religious Organizations. Journal Of Social Service Research, 39(4), 455-468. Web.

Lynch, S., & Lobo, M. (2012). Compassion fatigue in family caregivers: a Wilsonian concept analysis. Journal Of Advanced Nursing, 68(9), 2125-2134. Web.

Neville, K., & Cole, D. A. (2013). The Relationships Among Health Promotion Behaviors, Compassion Fatigue, Burnout, and Compassion Satisfaction in Nurses Practicing in a Community Medical Center. Journal Of Nursing Administration, 43(6), 348-354. Web.

Perry, B., Dalton, J. E., & Edwards, M. (2010). Family caregivers’ compassion fatigue in long-term facilities. Nursing Older People, 22(4), 26-31. Web.

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Slocum-Gori, S., Hemsworth, D., Chan, W., Carson, A., & Kazanjian, A. (2013). Understanding Compassion Satisfaction, Compassion Fatigue and Burnout: A survey of the hospice palliative care workforce. Palliative Medicine, 27(2), 172-178. Web.

Thomas, J. (2013). Association of Personal Distress With Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Compassion Satisfaction Among Clinical Social Workers. Journal Of Social Service Research, 39(3), 365-379. Web.

Zerach, G. (2013). Compassion Fatigue and Compassion Satisfaction Among Residential Child Care Workers: The Role of Personality Resources. Residential Treatment For Children & Youth, 30(1), 72-91. Web.

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