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What is compassion fatigue or empathic strain?


Do you find yourself always being a listening ear to friends or family? Do your loved ones come to you, when they are having a tough time?  Are you working in a helping profession, but lacking the time needed to support yourself?

If you are someone who is always caring for others, it’s natural to experience compassion fatigue at some point. Compassion fatigue (which is also called empathic strain) happens after the emotional and physical toll that takes place when carers are unable to refuel and regenerate over time.  Compassion fatigue often affects the most caring and empathic people.  You may have felt this before if you’ve supported someone who has gone through a traumatic experience, injury, or illness. It is a state of physical and mental exhaustion that can lead to being unable to cope with your everyday environment.


What are signs of compassion fatigue?


Compassion fatigue can look different for everyone, but it can affect you emotionally, mentally and physically. It can also change how you behave without you even noticing.


Some physical signs are:

  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Nausea
  • Having nightmares or difficulty sleeping

Some emotional and mental signs are:

  • Feeling irritated often
  • Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, or powerless when you hear about others suffering
  • Blaming yourself or thinking “I could have done more”

Some changes in behaviour are:

  • Having conflicts in your relationships
  • Being less productive at work
  • Not feeling pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
  • Some people actually take on more and more activities
  • Isolating yourself from close connections
  • “Numbing out” (binge-watching Netflix, excessive shopping, increase in substance use)


These signs are only a few things that might happen if you experience compassion fatigue.

Sometimes it can be hard to know if you’re experiencing compassion fatigue.  If you would like to take a self-test, the Professional Quality of Life Measure (ProQOL) is another way to help reflect on if you’ve been experiencing signs of compassion fatigue. It is commonly used to measure the negative and positive effects of helping others who experience suffering or trauma. It can be useful to complete this self-test at various points of the year to see how things change.

When we are exposed to difficult images and stories second-hand, we can experience intense emotions or indirect trauma, also known as Vicarious Trauma. If you are unable to maintain your daily routine or need support, reach out to a mental health professional or your doctor.

What can I do if I experience compassion fatigue?


It’s important to recognize early signs of compassion fatigue and receive help when you notice them. The most important thing you can do is recognize it and then educate yourself about what you can do. There is no universal solution for everyone, you need to find the supports that work for you.  It is important to remember that by recognizing the signs early on, it is easier to treat.  If you experience any of the early signs, there are things you can do for yourself like:


  • Reflect on your beliefs about self-care. Self-care is not selfish. You might feel guilty about enjoying yourself while others may experience sad or anxious times. Or perhaps, you struggle with feeling guilty for doing something that feels “less productive.” Hint: taking care of yourself might be the most productive thing you can do! Doing things for yourself replenishes the energy you have that helps others.
  • Experiment with what self-care means to you. This is your opportunity to get creative and try out various methods of self-care. Have you tried pouring a bath? What about making a mug of hot chocolate and going for a walk. Does journaling, or playing an instrument relieve stress? Saying no to activities, or taking time to finish important tasks are also methods of self-care. These are just a few ideas. You do what feels good for you!
  • Incorporate self-care into your routine. When you identify what kinds of self-care you are comfortable with, it’s time to make sure you actively try to include them in your everyday routine. Setting aside time for video games or scheduling walks outside are ways to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. You can also print out a little reminder card so you won’t forget about small things you can do that can make a big difference.
  • Re-evaluate your limits. You may often find yourself working really hard, delivering great results and then repeating the cycle to the point of exhaustion. You need to acknowledge that you’re human too and that being exposed to another person’s suffering takes its toll on you too. It’s okay to set limits on how much you can take on, or create boundaries with how much support you can provide for others before it begins to affect you.
  • Focus on what you do have control over. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you feel out of control. But focusing on the positive moments and what you were able to get done can help you if you are not feeling motivated.
  • Connect with others in similar situations. Helping your colleagues or connecting with like-minded individuals can help improve your mindset toward your work. Your colleagues also are likely to point out when you’ve been pushing yourself too hard, and you can do the same for them. Sometimes when we are experiencing empathic strain we actually isolate ourselves from our community, so it’s important to stay connected.

Remember that you don’t have to go through anything alone. Support is also available for you and there are options to help you manage the stress you might be feeling. As someone who constantly provides care, this might be difficult, but it’s an important step to making sure the care you give in the future is not affected by what you’re going through in the present.

Foundry’s provincial virtual services
Young people aged 12-24 and their caregivers can utilize the Foundry BC app to access drop-in or schedule virtual counselling appointments, find peer support, join a group or browse our library of tools and resources.

Some other resources you can check out are:

You don’t have to go through anything alone.

Did you know that many counsellors have their own counsellors? You, too, are allowed (and encouraged) to reach out for support. When the tables are turned and you need support, it’s normal to feel unsettled and unsure of what to do next. Supporting others at work or home and the relationships you have formed in the process are so appreciated, but it doesn’t discount the fact that you might need help sometimes too. You are not alone in what you are feeling; sharing your experience may help take some of the load off.


Keywords: covid-19, coronavirus, anxiety, coping, depression, self-care, mindfulness

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