Friday, July 28, 2017

Understanding Compassion Fatigue

guest blog by Mark Katz, PhD

What can bring loving relationships to a bitter end, pit caring parents against caring teachers, and emotionally deplete even the most resilient among us? The answer is compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is tantamount to exhaustion—emotional, physical, or both. It’s the price we sometimes pay for caring so much and working so hard to improve the lives of others who face various challenges. While the phenomenon has been studied most among those caring for someone suffering from the effects of traumatic stress exposure, many now believe it casts a much wider net.

We find it in parents raising an extremely hard-to-manage child, and in families caring for a loved one with a serious physical or psychiatric illness. We also find it in spouses, partners, and extended family members, in teachers, therapists, and other healthcare providers, and in police officers, firefighters, and emergency room hospital workers. We find it in any relationship where there exists a feeling of compassion for the suffering of another person, ongoing exposure to their suffering, and a sense of responsibility for helping.

When are we at risk? When caring for others obscures our need to also care for ourselves. Are all caregivers at risk? No. Only those with the ability to empathize with and feel compassion for those whose suffering they are trying to alleviate. If you lack empathy and compassion, you don’t have to worry about compassion fatigue. On the other hand, school administrators and others not directly in the line of fire can experience compassion fatigue if the necessary ingredients are present.

While signs and symptoms are known to vary from person to person, the more common ones are similar to those we experience when our emotional fuel tanks are on empty. Examples include:
  • feeling a sense of futility or a sense of hopelessness that better days lie ahead
  • questioning our abilities or even our worth
  • losing patience and the ability to control our emotions
  • difficulty sleeping, feeling tired, and not quite ourselves
  • losing our spark and sense of humor.
For those whose jobs or family members expose them to ongoing traumatic content, experts find that symptoms can actually resemble those associated with prolonged traumatic stress exposure. Some experts use the term compassion fatigue interchangeably with such terms as “secondary traumatic stress” and “vicarious traumatization.”  Charles Figley, PhD, of Tulane University has written extensively about compassion fatigue and differentiates the phenomenon from other terms used in the professional literature.

The good news is that compassion fatigue is preventable—or for those in its throes, reversible. Some experts say it’s simply remembering our ABCs: A = Awareness; B = Balance; C = Connections.
(Learn more from the article and presentation by Angelea Panos, PhD, posted on the Gift From Within website.)


Overcoming compassion fatigue begins with an awareness of its signs and symptoms. Many caregivers have never heard the term, including those struggling mightily to help a loved one with ADHD. Once aware, they can spot early warning signs and take action to restore balance and connections.

If you're a teacher and love your work but find that it has depleted your compassion fuel tank, it’s not burnout you’re experiencing, but rather compassion fatigue. Teachers and other professionals can visit to learn more about this phenomenon and fill out a Professional Quality of Life Scale.


Self-care plans are critical and should include activities that bring joy, hope, laughter, and gratitude. No doubt, this is easier said than done. Our brains are more sensitive to negative information than positive. But there’s good news. Experts tell us that intentionally paying attention to the positive things in our life strengthens neural pathways to positive memories. This, in turn, can eventually make it easier for us to focus on positive as opposed to negative experiences. Watch the TED talk by brain scientist Kristen Race, an expert on how stress affects the brain. She describes three simple practices for combating stress and significantly improving daily life.
Where to start? Begin by listing activities that restore a sense of calm and balance. Ask others you trust for their ideas. As new ideas come to mind add them to the list. Be sure to include regular exercise.

Learn about the Movement of Imperfection, which is dedicated to helping “imperfect parents” of “imperfect children” learn to see their children’s differences in a new light. Anyoneparents, teachers, therapists, etc.can join and benefit from this movement that has brought laughter, joy, and hope to countless lives.

Keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day write down three things you feel grateful for. Studies show that practicing gratitude can significantly improve our emotional lives.


Our greatest source of strength is each other. It’s important to restore or actively seek connections with others we value and trust, to whom we can turn for support. Remember that emotions can be contagious. Connecting with others who see the light at the end of the tunnel helps us to see the light at the end of the tunnel as well.

Join others who understand the challenges you are facing. CHADD increases awareness and understanding of the challenges impacting those affected by ADHD, advocates on their behalf, and provides its members with ongoing support and encouragement. Such organizations loom large in efforts to prevent and reverse compassion fatigue. Find out if there is a CHADD affiliate group in your area. You can also learn how to start one.


Join an online community dedicated to ADHD where you can safely connect with others. CHADD has now set up two online communities through the social networking site HealthUnlocked: ADHD Parents Together and Adult ADHD Support. These groups provide peer-to-peer support as well as guidance from a credible organization dedicated to supporting individuals and families affected by ADHD. 

A clinical and consulting psychologist, Mark Katz, PhD, is the director of Learning Development Services, an educational, psychological, and neuropsychological center in San Diego, California. He is the author of Children Who Fail at School but Succeed at Life: Lessons from Lives Well-Lived (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2016). A former member of CHADD’s professional advisory board and a recipient of the CHADD Hall of Fame Award, Dr. Katz serves on the editorial advisory board of Attention. As a contributing editor, he writes the magazine's Promising Practices column, in which a version of this blog originally appeared. He has been a keynote presenter at numerous national conferences, and has conducted trainings across the US for schools, healthcare organizations, and community groups working to improve educational and mental health systems of care.

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