affection woman caregiver mitigating compassion fatigue definition by being loving toward mother in wheelchair

Understanding Compassion Fatigue

Some people may be familiar with the concept of compassion fatigue but not fully understand all the short and long-term implications. We provide a comprehensive review of compassion fatigue including the definition, symptoms, and compassion fatigue vs caregiver burnout. We also discuss self care tips and how to prevent compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout.


What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a secondary post traumatic stress disorder resulting from exposure to someone else’s traumatic experiences.

It causes emotional stress, and is an occupational hazard for those who encounter trauma at work, like child protection workers, nurses and mental health professionals.

Healthcare Professionals such as emergency and community service workers are susceptible to compassion fatigue because they are regularly exposed to other people’s traumatic experiences.

Research indicates that compassion fatigue has two main components: secondary traumatic stress and burnout.

It may be associated with family caregivers where your loved one (the one you are caring for) is experiencing significant emotional anguish or physical pain.

Caregivers are susceptible to compassion fatigue because of the intense and emotional care provided to a loved one.



Why is Understanding Compassion Fatigue Important?

According to AARP, 20% of Americans act as caregivers to chronically ill, elderly, or disabled people.

Taking care of an aging parent, grandparent, or chronically ill family member is not an easy task.

It is something that can have a significant effect on the well-being and health of the caregiver.

Especially if, in addition,  you have other responsibilities like a full-time job or raising children.


Compassion fatigue may affect both medical professionals  and family caregivers.

For those who provide care for victims of disaster, trauma, or illness, compassion fatigue is a cost to caring that is often not considered when the responsibility is taken on.

Compassion fatigue is a professional risk for doctors, nurses, child protection workers, palliative care workers, police officers, animal welfare workers, etc.

However, caregivers are also often at risk as they take on the care of loved ones who are aging, living with a disability, having a chronic illness, and experiencing things such as pain, suffering, and loss.


paramedics helping man in ambulance


Compassion Fatigue Definition

Compassion fatigue is a condition usually characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion.

It reduces the ability to empathize with or feel compassion for others.

When caregivers (or any professional who fulfills the ‘helper’ role) are depleted physically or emotionally, and they are unable to recharge.

Sometimes compassion fatigue, by definition, is said to be the negative cost of caring.

It is also sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress.


Compassion fatigue can also be experiencing excessive negative feelings or feelings of indifference toward the task of caring for another person.

This includes if you are caring for a loved one.

These feelings can be amplified by other responsibilities and sources of stress the caregiver might have.



Secondary Traumatic Stress

Secondary Traumatic Stress is the negative impact of coping with the effects of other people’s trauma.

In other words, those who deal with someone who is traumatized may develop their symptoms of traumatic stress, which is known as secondary traumatic stress.

Compassion fatigue is a secondary traumatic stress disorder and has symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is experienced by caregivers in a stressful environment, particularly when they absorb the trauma and emotional stress of the person they care for.





Compassion fatigue symptoms text on image with two doctors


Compassion Fatigue Symptoms

The following symptoms can identify compassion fatigue:

  • Lack of empathy or indifference to suffering
  • Feelings of sadness, anxiety, increased irritability, anger, and exhaustion (physical or emotional)
  • Feeling overwhelmed or burdened by the suffering of others
  • Avoiding time with the person in care (choosing to work late, prioritizing other tasks)
  • Fantasizing about no longer having to tend to the person in care
  • Decreased tolerance
  • Reactivity and a short temper
  • Impaired ability to make decisions, especially those related to care
  • Bouts of insomnia, nightmares, or difficulty sleeping
  • Physical symptoms of stress like headaches, digestive problems, and muscle tension



Why Understand Compassion Fatigue Symptoms?

If compassion fatigue symptoms are left unmanaged, compassion fatigue can decrease the health and well-being of the caregiver.

Caregivers are at increased risk for some chronic health conditions and often neglect their own health care needs.

Recognizing the symptoms of compassion fatigue is important so caregivers can take action.

If you notice signs of compassion fatigue, implementing self-care can help reduce symptoms.

In addition, to is a good idea to discuss your compassion fatigue and symptoms with your health professional.


For more information about stress, what it is, how it may harm our body and how to prevent it, read our blog post: What is Stress?

For more information about anxiety, including causes, treatments and how to help someone with anxiety, read out blog post: Understanding Anxiety Disorder and Symptoms




senior woman crying during therapy session with compassion fatigue vs caregiver burnout


Compassion Fatigue vs. Caregiver Burnout

Compassion fatigue is different from caregiver burnout.

A caregiver may experience both compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout simultaneously, but they are not the same thing.

Compassion fatigue is a secondary trauma disorder experienced by the caregiver due to taking on the emotional load and stress of the loved one they are caring for.

It creates high levels of emotional stress and frequently results in weakened empathy for your loved one that you are caring for.


Caregiver burnout is the mental exhaustion and “worn out” feeling a caregiver may experience.

While burnout is stressful and affects the caregiver’s ability to provide care, it is not a stress disorder and usually has a faster recovery time than compassion fatigue.

Signs of burnout are feeling like tasks are not complete, fatigue, frustration, indifference, shortened temper, negativity, and withdrawal.


For more information about caregiver burnout, read our post Caregiver Burnout & Fatigue.







prevention text near computer keyboard


How to Prevent and Cope with Compassion Fatigue and Caregiver Burnout

Identifying and managing compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout can be extremely important for those in caregiving positions.

Your healthcare provider can help you if you feel you are experiencing either compassion fatigue or caregiver burnout.

There are also ways you can self-monitor and prevent compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout.

Caregiver self-care should be part of your daily routine.


Below are seven of our self-care tips.




red haired woman showing anxiety


7 Caregiver Self Care Tips

1. Track Your Stress, Feelings, and Moods

If you care for another person, you may want to begin tracking your stress levels, feelings, and moods over time.

Doing this will help you identify any changes and give you actual data to share with your healthcare provider.

Some people may choose to use a rating scale for different indicators. This can be helpful, especially when some of the signs of compassion fatigue are somewhat normal for you.

For example, if you often experience anxiety, you can use your “normal” as a neutral and rate it a 5 out of 10.

Then you can track whether your anxiety goes up or down on certain days or while doing certain activities.

Many people suffer from anxiety or may have an anxiety disorder.


For more information about anxiety, read our post Understanding Anxiety Disorder and Symptoms.


2. Keep a Journal

While journaling is similar to tracking feelings on a rating scale, it is not quite the same.

Keeping a journal can help you process the thoughts and feelings, rather than just acknowledging them or their severity from day to day.

It has been found that journaling can be therapeutic by allowing you to get your thoughts out of your head and on paper.

Processing your thoughts and working through challenging situations may also help you with the indecisiveness or impairment to make sound judgments when coping with compassion fatigue.



3. Release Your Negative Energy

Stagnant negative emotional energy drains us.

You need to acknowledge your feelings and try to release any negative energy.

For example, find someone to talk to, meditate, go for a walk, take a hike, journal are ways to release negative energy or tension that builds up throughout the day.


We only have enough emotional power in a day.

As you enter a new day, try to let go of what upset you yesterday, so it does not drain you again today.

In addition, try to forgive. For example, try to forgive your loved one with dementia for their outburst towards you, forgive your child for not picking up their clothes from the floor, or forgive your boss for what he or she said to you.

Furthermore, try to protect your emotional energy and use it to create the life that you want.

Make the decision today to take care of yourself, because you are so worth it!



4. Find Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress

People have different ways that to mitigate stress.

However, some methods of stress management are healthier than others.

For example, instead of overeating, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol or recreational drugs, misusing prescription drugs, taking aggression out on family or friends, or avoiding social situations, try to redirect and take up positive coping strategies.

Some positive coping strategies include doing things like listening to music, spending time outdoors exercising, practicing yoga or meditation, or seeking counseling.

These activities will help alleviate stress and will also help prevent the chronic health issues that caregivers can be at higher risk for.

Whether compassion fatigue vs caregiver burnout, find healthy ways to cope with stress.


How to Cope with Stress?


  • Practice self-compassion – respect that you are human, and reflect on your emotional wounds
  • Start exercising and eating healthy
  • Get enough sleep
  • Take time off
  • Play with a pet
  • Find someone to talk to, seeking counseling may also be helpful
  • Do things you are interested in
  • Spend time outdoors
  • Meditate, yoga, listen to music
  • Practice deep breathing, meditation, or muscle relaxation
  • See your doctor regularly



  • Self-medicate
  • Neglect your needs and interests
  • Overeat
  • Consume excessive amounts of alcohol or recreational drugs
  • Neglect your health, including your mental well-being




three happy seniors having fun outside for self care to minimize compassion fatigue vs caregiver burnout




5. Set Boundaries and Outsource Tasks

When you care for a loved one, it is tempting to want to do everything for them.

However, when it comes to preventing or coping with compassion fatigue, it is essential to recognize your limitations and bring others in to help you when needed.

For example, having a friend or relative to assist you with responsibilities such as shopping, laundry, cooking, or cleaning is invaluable.

You cannot be everything to everyone.

With this in mind, make a chore list and share the chores with your family members.


You might not be comfortable or safe performing certain tasks.

For this reason, at times it might be best to look for someone more qualified or a better fit for the task to help fulfill some of your loved one’s needs.

It is good to have a conversation with the person in your care about your boundaries and filter your efforts into finding someone who has the time or is a better fit for taking them on.



6. Prioritize Yourself and Your Health

Compassion fatigue can lead to more serious mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The best care you can provide is when you help your loved one from a place of stability and strength.

Taking care of yourself first will put you in the best position to take care of another.


The best way to do this is to make self-care a daily habit.

There is a magical thing that happens when you go out for coffee with a friend or take a quiet walk in nature.

You feel rejuvenated; you feel connected.

Moreover, these mini-breaks do wonders for the soul and are highly encouraged.

Additionally, joining support groups, talking with others about your experience, and also having a network of family and friends that you can rely on will help you to feel like you are not alone in your situation.



7. Implement Caregiver Self Care in Your Daily Routine

Other Things You Can Do for Self-Care Include:

  • Take time out for simple pleasures.
  • Sit down to eat your meal.  Taste your food.
  • Become more aware of your surroundings. Enjoy them.
  • Appreciate the sound of a bird chirping on your lawn.
  • Walk the dog.
  • Carve out some time for exercise.
  • Connect with yourself again. Find you.
  • Eat healthy
  • Make sure to get enough sleep


Most importantly, if you feel you are already experiencing compassion fatigue or caregiver burnout, seek professional help from your healthcare provider.

three doctors standing in hallway


Self-Care Summary

Self-care is critical for caregivers so that you stay physically and emotionally healthy.

It can prevent caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue.

The benefits of eating healthy, exercising, staying hydrated and getting enough sleep are well documented.

Regular visits to your health care professional, mindfulness and relaxation can also be very helpful.

Read our blog post for more about self-care tips for caregivers.


Where to Find Help

Caring for a loved one, especially when they have complex needs like Alzheimer’s disease can get complicated and demanding.

There may be resources available in your community.

These resources could help you and your loved one. For example, there may be low or no-cost meal delivery programs, visiting nurses, or respite care available.

These programs can alleviate some of your stress.

For an in-depth list of community resources, read our post Senior Resources- Guide for Caregivers.




Compassion fatigue happens when you take on the suffering of others. Compassion fatigue has two components, which includes secondary traumatic stress and burnout.  Caregiver burnout happens over time and has a quicker recovery than compassion fatigue. Practicing self-care and finding healthy ways to cope with stress can prevent both. It is a good idea to look at the available resources near you, to see if your loved one is eligible for any physical or financial help that could ease their burden as well as yours.






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