What is compassion fatigue?

illustration of man's profile turning into ashes like paper

You’ve heard of burnout, but may not have heard of compassion fatigue. As more family members become caregivers, more seem to be learning about this term. A heavy workload and never-ending tasks may make you wonder if you’ve developed compassion fatigue. What is it and what can you do about it?

Compassion fatigue is a type of stress caused by caring for others. Although burnout develops over time, compassion fatigue comes on suddenly. In his article “Burnout and Compassion Fatigue: Watch for these Signs,” psychotherapist Dennis Portnoy classifies compassion fatigue as a form of burnout.

“Compassion fatigue is caused by empathy,” he explains. “It is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people.” According to Portnoy, burnout and compassion fatigue may overlap.

The American Institute of Stress, in the definition section of its website, describes this acute stress as “vicarious traumatization” because it’s caused by working with those who are suffering from the consequences of a traumatic event. The symptoms of compassion fatigue can be worrisome and include:

  • less ability to function
  • more stress than usual
  • caregiver feels traumatized
  • working harder, getting less done
  • irritability
  • feeling bored
  • more sickness, aches, and pains

When compassion fatigue strikes you and your loved one both suffer. You feel like your life has become a stress mess. Having a few of the symptoms doesn’t mean you have compassion fatigue. Until I found the cause of my symptoms, I thought I had compassion fatigue. I wasn’t functioning well, was extremely stressed, worked harder and accomplished less, was a general grouch, and had two arthritic hips. After my husband and I adjusted our daily routine and I was able to get seven hours of sleep a night, my compassion fatigue symptoms disappeared. It turned out I was suffering from sleep deprivation.

What can you do about this form of stress?

Assess your self-care. If you haven’t seen a doctor in years, now is the time to get a physical exam. Ask your doctor to update your prescriptions because some may be out of date.

Stay physically active. Put regular physical activity on your daily calendar. Walking is the easiest and cheapest form of physical activity. A fifteen-minute walk, short as it is, can boost your spirits.

Try deep breathing. Also called diaphragm breathing, this technique can help to reduce stress. The technique is difficult at first, but the more you practice it, the easier it becomes.

Check your support system. Fill in any gaps that you find. Put a list of emergency phone numbers on your cell phone or by your landline phone.

Join a caregiving support group. This could be a hospital group, church group, or online community. Attend several meetings before you make a membership decision.

Include some fun in each day. Take a break and read a magazine, or watch a television program, knit for a while, or call a friend. Sitting quietly may also be fun.

Care for your spiritual self. How you do this depends upon your religious and spiritual beliefs. Ask your church for help if you need it because these are the folks who show up, work hard, and give you hugs.

Follow these steps and you can get rid of compassion fatigue before it starts.

About author

Harriet Hodgson

Harriet Hodgson has been a freelance writer for 36+ years and is the author of 35 books. She has a BS from Wheelock College in Boston, MA and an MA from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN campus. Hodgson is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Association for Death Education and Counseling, and Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support. In addition, she is a Contributing Writer for the Open to hope Foundation website and The Grief Toolbox website. She has appeared on more than 170 talk shows, including CBS Radio, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. A popular speaker, she has given presentation at public health, Alzheimer’s, and bereavement conferences. Her work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. Harriet lives in Rochester, Minnesota with her husband, John.


  1. Marie Grace 5 July, 2015 at 14:39 Reply

    Thank you Harriet! We have chatted in the past about anticipatory grief. This was also me. Overly compassionate and wanting my husbands life to be so comfortable so he didn’t have to deal with his MS. That I was suffering terribly.

    Since we have chatted. I have made several changes in my life and life style. I do yoga now and meditation. I see a therapist. I go into nature as much as I can. I get massages I have rethought my schedule and structure we had in our home. I am doing much better making changes to take care of myself and not losing myself, morphing as I call it. I have an identity now. It feels good and it is helping my health a lot.

    Thank you for your writings, they help me so much. Have a great day! Marie grace

  2. Karen C 21 July, 2015 at 10:45 Reply

    I had never heard of compassion fatigue before but this article was extremely informative. Empathy can be exhausting! I had so much anxiety starting this process (moving in my mom) and I find it so comforting to find so many blogs and books that can help from start to finish. Having a positive support network is key! Being able to ask for help is the only thing that will help prevent caregiving burnout. You have to realize that if you don’t take time for yourself every now and then you are actually hurting the person you’re taking care of in the long run. You don’t want to resent them or get angry when it all becomes too much. This article really reminded me of a book that was recommended to me recently by author Pamela Wilson called “The Caregiving Trap” (http://pameladwilson.com/book/). The author is a leading expert in the caregiving industry both professionally and personally and she provides insight for both the caregiver and the recipient in this amazing book. She has helped me to “remove my rose colored glasses” and accept all the challenges of caring for an aging parent so I am prepared for my mother’s declining health, her increasing care needs and the financial/emotional costs involved. I cannot say enough about this wonderful guide. Hope you and your readers will check it out

  3. harriethodgson 25 July, 2015 at 22:43 Reply

    Thank you for reading my article Karen. Please watch for my family caregiving series, published by WriteLife in Omaha, Nebraska. The first two books come out in the fall. They are the Family Caregiver’s Guide, release date Sept. 7th, and Affirmations for Family Caregivers, release date Oct. 7th.

  4. davidpetraitis 5 April, 2016 at 08:49 Reply

    Thank you Harriet. You seem to assume caregivers are female with your “Include some fun” suggestions… Maybe I Should take up knitting!

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