Compassion fatigue presents a paradox for counselors and others in the helping professions. As Alyson Carr, a licensed mental health counselor and supervisor in Florida, points out, it compromises their ability to do the very thing that motivated many of them to enter the field in the first place — empathically support those in pain.
Empathy and compassion are attributes those in the helping professions are particularly proud to possess and cultivate. Yet those same characteristics may leave some professionals more susceptible to becoming traumatized themselves as they regularly observe and work with those who are suffering.
Jennifer Blough provides counseling services to other helping professionals as owner of the private practice Deepwater Counseling in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She says many of her clients experience compassion fatigue. One of her former clients, an emergency room nurse, witnessed trauma daily. One day, the nurse treated a child who had suffered horrendous physical abuse, and the child died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
This incident haunted the nurse. She had nightmares and intrusive thoughts about the child’s death and abuse. She started to isolate to the point that she had to step away from her job because she refused to leave her house. She couldn’t even bring herself to call Blough. She just sent a text asking for help instead.
Blough, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and certified compassion fatigue therapist, asked the nurse to come to her office, but the nurse said she was comfortable leaving her home only when accompanied by her dog. So, Blough told her to bring her dog with her to the session. That got the nurse in the door.
From there, Blough and the nurse worked together to help the client process her trauma. Blough also taught the client to recognize the warning signs of compassion fatigue so that she could use resiliency, grounding skills, relaxation, boundary setting, gratitude and self-compassion to help keep her empathy from becoming unmanageable again.
Defining compassion fatigue
“One of the most important ways to help clients who might be struggling with compassion or empathy fatigue is to provide psychoeducation,” Blough says. “A lot of people don’t even realize there’s a name for what they’re going through or that others are going through the same thing.”
Blough, author of To Save a Starfish: A Compassion-Fatigue Workbook for the Animal-Welfare Warrior, didn’t understand that she was experiencing compassion fatigue when she worked at an animal shelter and as an animal control officer before becoming a counselor. After she started feeling depressed, she decided that she was weak and unfit for her job and ultimately left the field entirely. It wasn’t until she was in graduate school for counseling that she learned there was a name for what she had experienced — compassion fatigue.
According to the American Institute of Stress, compassion fatigue is “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from consequences of traumatic events.” This differs from burnout, which is a “cumulative process marked by emotional exhaustion and withdrawal associated with workload and institutional stress, not trauma-related.”
Although compassion fatigue is the more well-known and widely used term, there is some debate about whether it is the most accurate one. Some mental health professionals argue that people can never be too compassionate. Instead, they say, what people experience is empathy fatigue.
In an interview with CT Online in 2013, Mark Stebnicki described empathy fatigue as resulting from “a state of psychological, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual and occupational exhaustion that occurs as the counselors’ own wounds are continually revisited by their clients’ life stories of chronic illness, disability, trauma, grief and loss.”
April McAnally, an LPC in private practice in Austin, Texas, is among those who believe that people can’t have too much compassion. Compassion involves having empathy and feeling what the other person does, but we have a screen — an internal boundary — that protects us, McAnally says. “Empathy, however, can be boundaryless,” she continues. “We can find ourselves overwhelmed with what the other person is experiencing. … So, what we actually become fatigued by is empathy without the internal boundary that is present with compassion.”
As Blough puts it, “Empathy is the ability to identify with, or experience, another’s emotions, whereas compassion is the desire to help alleviate suffering. In other words, compassion is empathy in action.”
McAnally, a certified compassion fatigue professional, also suggests using the term secondary trauma. She finds that it more accurately describes the emotional stress and nervous system dysregulation that her clients experience when they are indirectly exposed to the trauma and suffering of another person or animal.
Symptoms and risk factors
Anyone can be susceptible to burnout, but compassion fatigue most often affects caregivers and those working in the helping professions, such as counselors, nurses, social workers, veterinarians, teachers and clergy.
Working in a job with a high frequency of trauma exposure may increase the likelihood of developing compassion fatigue, McAnally adds. For example, a nurse working in an OBGYN office may have a lower risk of developing compassion fatigue than would an emergency room nurse. Even though they both share the same job title, the impact and frequency of trauma is going to be higher in the ER, McAnally explains.
Counselors should also consider race/ethnicity and contextual factors when assessing for compassion fatigue. Racial injustices that members of marginalized populations regularly experience are sources of pervasive and ongoing trauma, McAnally notes. And unresolved trauma increases the likelihood of someone experiencing empathy fatigue, she adds.
Carr, an American Counseling Association member who specializes in complex trauma and anxiety, and Blough both believe the collective trauma resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and exposure to repeated acts of racial violence and injustice could lead to collective compassion fatigue for all helping professionals (if it hasn’t already).
McAnally, a member of the Texas Counseling Association, a branch of ACA, says the current sociopolitical climate has also affected the types of clients she is seeing, with more individuals who identify as activists and concerned citizens seeking counseling of late. She has found that these clients are experiencing the same compassion fatigue symptoms that those in the helping professions do.
Blough and Victoria Camacho, an LPC and owner of Mind Menders Counseling in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, say symptoms of compassion fatigue can include the following:
- Feelings of sadness or depression
- Sleep problems
- Changes in appetite
- Anger or irritability
- Nightmares or intrusive thoughts
- Feelings of being isolated
- Problems at work
- A compulsion to work hard and long hours
- Relationship conflicts
- Difficulty separating work from personal life
- Reactivity and hypervigilance
- Increased negative arousal
- Lower frustration tolerance
- Decreased feelings of confidence
- A diminished sense of purpose or enjoyment
- Lack of motivation
- Issues with time management
- Unhealthy coping skills such as substance use
- Suicidal thoughts
There are also individual risk factors. According to Camacho, a certified compassion fatigue professional, individuals with large caseloads, those with limited or no support networks, those with personal histories of trauma or loss, and those working in unsupportive environments are at higher risk of developing compassion fatigue.
In fact, research shows a correlation between a lack of training and the likelihood of developing compassion fatigue. So, someone at the beginning of their career who feels overwhelmed by their job and lacks adequate training and support could be at higher risk for experiencing compassion fatigue, McAnally says.
One assessment tool that both Blough and Camacho use with clients is the Professional Quality of Life Scale, a free tool that measures the negative and positive effects of helping others who experience suffering and trauma. Blough says this assessment helps her better understand her clients’ levels of trauma exposure, burnout, compassion fatigue and job satisfaction.
Regulating the body and mind
“Having an awareness of our emotions and experiences, especially in a mindful way, can serve as a barometer to help protect us against developing full-blown compassion fatigue,” says Blough, a member of ACA and Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA.
Part of this awareness includes being mindful of one’s nervous system and the physical changes occurring within one’s body. When someone experiences compassion fatigue, their amygdala, the part of the brain involved in the fight-or-flight response, gets tripped a little too quickly, McAnally explains. So, their body may react as if they are in physical danger (e.g., heart racing, sweating, feeling panicky) even though they aren’t.
If clients get dysregulated, McAnally advises them to use grounding techniques to remind themselves that they are safe. She will often ask clients to look all over the room, including turning around in their chairs, so they can realize there is nothing to fear at that moment. She also uses the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, in which clients use their senses to notice things around them — five things they see, four things they hear, three things they feel, two things they taste and one thing they smell.
Research has shown that practicing mindfulness for even a few minutes a day can increase the size of the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, McAnally adds.
Blough often uses the square breathing technique to ground clients and get them to slow down. She will ask clients to breathe deeply while simultaneously adding a visual component of making a square with their eyes. They breathe in for four seconds while their eyes scan left to right. They hold their breath for four seconds while their eyes scan up to down. They breathe out for four seconds while their eyes scan right to left. And they hold their breath for four seconds while their eyes move down to up.
Counselors can also teach clients to do a full body scan to regulate themselves, Blough and Camacho suggest. This technique involves feeling for tension throughout the body while visualizing moving from the head down to the feet. If the person notices tension in any area, then they stop and slowly release it.
Camacho once had a client lean forward and grab the armrest of the chair they were sitting in while talking. She stopped the client and asked, “Do you notice you are gripping the armrest? Why do you think you are doing that?”
The client responded, “I wasn’t aware of it, but I find it comfortable. I feel like I’m grounding myself.”
Camacho, an ACA member who specializes in posttraumatic stress disorder, trauma, and compassion fatigue in professionals who serve others, used this as a teachable moment to show the client how to ground themselves while also having relaxed muscles. She asked the client to release their grip on the chair and instead to lightly run their fingers across it and focus on its texture.
Carr finds dancing to be another useful intervention. “Engaging in dancing and moving communicates to our brains that we are not in danger. [It] allows us to develop and strengthen affect regulation skills as well as have a nonverbal, integrated body-mind experience,” she explains.
Creating emotional boundaries
Setting boundaries can be another challenge for helping professionals. Blough says many of her clients report feeling guilty if they say “no” to a request. They often feel they have to take on one more client or take in one more animal. But she asks them, at whose expense?
Blough reminds clients that saying “no” or setting a boundary just means saying “yes” to another possibility. For example, if a client wants to schedule an appointment on Thursday night at the same time that the therapist’s child has a soccer game, then telling the client “no” just means that the therapist is saying “yes” to their family and to their own mental health.
Blough and McAnally recommend that people create routines to help themselves separate work from home. For example, clients and counselors alike could listen to an audiobook or podcast during their commute home, or they could meditate, take a walk or even take a shower to signify the end of the workday, Blough suggests. “Anything that helps them clear their head and allows them to be fully present for themselves or their families,” she adds.
People can also establish what Carr calls an “off switch” to help them realize that work is over. That action might involve simply shutting the office door, washing one’s hands or doing a stretch. At the end of the workday, Carr likes to put her computer in a different room or in a drawer so that it is out of sight and mind. Then, she takes 10 deep breaths and leaves work in that space.
“Because a lot of helping professionals are highly driven and dedicated, they tend to have unrealistic expectations and demand a lot from themselves, even to the point of depletion,” Blough says. “Having low levels of self-compassion can lead to compassion fatigue, particularly symptoms associated with depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder.”
In other words, self-compassion is integral to helping people manage compassion fatigue. “Self-criticism keeps our systems in a state of arousal that prevents our brains from optimal functioning,” Carr notes, “whereas self-compassion allows us to be in a state of loving, connected presence. Therefore, it is considered to be one of the most effective coping mechanisms. It can provide us with the emotional resources we need to care for others, help us maintain an optimal state of mind, and enhance immune function.”
According to Kristin Neff, an expert on self-compassion, caregivers should generate enough compassion for themselves and the person they are helping that they can remain in the presence of suffering without being overwhelmed. In fact, she claims that caregivers often need to focus the bulk of their attention on giving themselves compassion so that they will have enough emotional stability to be there for others.
People in the helping professions can become so focused on caring for others that they forget to give themselves compassion and neglect to engage in their own self-care. Blough often asks clients to tell her about activities that they enjoy — ones that take their mind off work, help them relax and allow them to feel a sense of accomplishment. Then she asks how often they engage in those activities. Clients often tell her, “I used to do it all the time before I became a professional caregiver.”
She reminds them that they can help others only if they are also taking care of themselves. That means they need to take time to engage in activities that relax and recharge them; it isn’t a choice they should feel guilty making.
Self-regulating in session
As helpers, counselors are likely to experience symptoms of compassion fatigue at some point. This is especially true for clinicians who frequently see clients who are dealing with trauma, loss and grief.
For McAnally, that experience came early in her career. During practicum, she had a client with a complex trauma history who couldn’t sleep at night. In turn, McAnally found herself waking up in the middle of the night, worrying about the client. She knew this was a warning sign, so she reached out to her supervisor, who helped her develop a plan to mitigate the risk of compassion fatigue.
It almost goes without saying that counselors should take the advice they give to their own clients: They should establish a self-care routine. They should seek their own counseling and support. They should set boundaries and find ways to recharge outside of work. And they should exercise self-compassion.
But counselors also need to find ways to self-regulate during sessions. “If you are tense and you’re hearing all of these heavy stories, you’re at a much greater risk of being vicariously traumatized,” Blough says. Self-regulation can provide a level of protection from that occurring, she notes.
Blough often uses the body scan technique while she is in session. Doing this, she can quietly relax her body without it drawing the attention of her clients. In addition, as she teaches relaxation skills to her clients, she does the skills with them. For example, she slows her own breathing while teaching clients guided breath work. That way, she is relaxing along with them.
Likewise, McAnally has learned to be self-aware and regulate her nervous system when she is in session. If she notices her heart rate accelerating and her stomach clinching when a client is describing a painful or traumatic event, then she grounds herself. She orients herself by wiggling her toes and noticing what it feels like for her feet to be touching the ground. She also looks around the room to remind her brain that she is safe.
McAnally also uses internal self-talk. She will think, “I’m OK right now.” As with the body scan, this is a subtle action that clinicians can take to ground themselves without the client even being aware that they are doing it.
Helping the helpers during COVID-19
Recently, Carr received a text from a counseling mentor who has been practicing for 40 years that said, “I am falling apart. I am lost. I don’t know what to do, but sending a text to someone I trust felt right. Write or call when you can.”
Carr quickly reached out, and her colleague said he was experiencing a sense of hopelessness that he hadn’t in many years. He worried about his clients and feared he wasn’t doing everything he could for them. He was also anxious about finances; several of his clients had become unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so he started seeing them pro bono. All of this was taking a toll on him personally and professionally.
Before the pandemic, McAnally managed her compassion fatigue symptoms in part by checking in with other therapists who worked down the hall from her office and by participating in in-person consultation groups. Now that she is working from home full time because of the pandemic, she says that she has to be more intentional about practicing self-care and accessing support. She calls her colleagues to check in, practices mindfulness, and schedules breaks to go outside and play with her dog.
Even when counselors recognize that they need help, they can encounter barriers similar to those their clients face. For instance, they may not be able to find in-network providers, and only a small portion of the hourly rate may be covered by their insurance. This problem made Carr pose some questions: “Who is helping the helpers right now? How can we take care of others if we aren’t able to more easily take care of ourselves?”
Then she decided to take action. She created Counseling for Counselors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the emotional and psychological impact on mental health providers during a time of collective trauma. The organization’s aim is to generate funding that would allow self-employed licensed mental health professionals in need of treatment to more easily access those services.
“Although the heightened state of anxiety around the pandemic may have exposed this critical need, the demand for quality, affordable mental health care for counselors is ongoing,” Carr says. “Counselors are not immune to trauma and, now more than ever, licensed mental health professionals need access to mental health services in order to effectively treat the populations we serve and to continue to play an instrumental part in contributing to the well-being of society at large.”
Fostering compassion satisfaction
People in the helping professions often feel guilty or ashamed about struggling with compassion fatigue. They sometimes believe they should be immune or should be able to find a way to push through despite their symptoms. But that isn’t the case.
“I think the biggest takeaway when it comes to compassion fatigue is that it’s a normal, almost inevitable consequence of caring for and helping others. It’s not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. It’s not a mental illness. It affects the best and brightest and those who care the most,” Blough says.
For that matter, compassion fatigue isn’t something you “have” or “don’t have,” she adds. Instead, it operates on a spectrum, which is why it is so important for helping professionals to be aware of its warning signs and symptoms.
Blough acknowledges that compassion fatigue is always present in some form for her personally. She often manages it well, so it just simmers in the background. But sometimes it boils over. When that happens, she knows to regulate herself, to increase her self-care and to get support.
It is easy for a negative experience to overshadow a helping professional’s entire day and push aside any positive aspects. That’s why Blough and McAnally both recommend setting aside time daily to list three positive things that happened at work. A counselor or other helping professional could focus on the joy they felt when they witnessed an improvement in their client that day or when they witnessed the “aha!” moment on their client’s face.
Blough often advises clients to journal or otherwise reflect on these positive experiences before they go to bed because it can help prevent rumination and intrusive thoughts that may disrupt sleep. Celebrating these “little victories” will help renew their passion for their job, she adds.
As Blough points out, “Empathy can definitely lead to compassion fatigue, but if properly managed, it can also foster compassion satisfaction, which is the antithesis of compassion fatigue. It’s the joy you get from your work.”
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.