Help for the Helper: Dealing with Compassion Fatigue



Welcome to the National Guard Family Program e-learning lesson, “Help for the Helper: Dealing with Compassion Fatigue.” Caregivers are very sensitive to the traumas and challenges that other people experience. Service members can return from war scarred in psychological and physical ways, and caregivers often experience overwhelming sadness and compassion for those who suffer. By the end of this lesson, you will be able to define compassion fatigue, identify signs of compassion fatigue, and recognize tools and techniques for self-care to avoid burnout.

Caregivers’ work can impact their emotional health.

Caregivers are often eager to support service members and their families as they struggle with a variety of challenges. They seek to make a positive impact on the lives of those who have been physically or psychologically wounded. While this can be satisfying work, caregivers must also learn how to manage their own well-being and maintain their emotional strength. Failure to do so can hinder their ability to support others on an ongoing basis.

This lesson will help you understand and manage compassion fatigue.

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

CHAPTER 1: Defining Compassion Fatigue

Caregivers are often drawn to their profession because they can relate to others’ experiences or because they have a passion for helping others. If, however, they neglect to care for themselves while they are caring for others, they may take on too heavy a load—and they can develop compassion fatigue. Think of secondhand smoke. Though one person may be a nonsmoker, if he or she spends a lot of time near smokers, cigarettes can still cause harmful physical effects—even if the person doesn’t directly inhale the smoke. Learning how to manage compassion fatigue can protect you from those “secondhand” effects of traumatic experiences.

Caregivers seek to make positive impacts in the lives of those they serve.

As a Family Program employee or volunteer, you likely possess a passion for helping and tending to others. Caregivers are drawn to the field for several different reasons. Perhaps they have developed a strong passion for the job or relate to others’ struggles based on experiences they’ve overcome in their own lives. In other cases, a caregiver may have acquired the helping role in his or her own family. Some may have been raised in homes where caregiving is expected as part of the moral fiber of the family.

Regardless of their individual experiences, caregivers share many qualities. They generally love their work, have strong feelings of empathy, and have a passion to help. It can be quite gratifying to help another person through his or her difficulties. The feeling that you have made a positive impact on someone else’s life can be a great joy. For many, the work is a calling rather than a job.

“Trauma stewardship” involves a caregiver’s ability to remain differentiated from the person being helped.

Caregivers may experience a deep connection to others that brings about a deeper meaning in their own lives. Sometimes, however, this ability to keenly empathize with and support others can drain a caregiver’s emotional reserves. The term “trauma stewardship” (coined by researchers Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk) is a powerful reminder that those who witness others’ suffering have a sense of responsibility to demonstrate trustworthiness and care. At the same time, they must recognize that the sufferer’s pain does not belong to them. Caregivers must remain differentiated.

For a caregiver, “differentiation” means recognizing the emotional border between the self and the other. Helpers are often drawn to their various fields because of a personal experience. While this can make the helper more compassionate, empathetic, and insightful, he or she can also risk blurring the lines between his or her own experience and that of the other person. Being differentiated means understanding that separateness and those differences. It’s also important for a caregiver to understand that each person experiences life in different ways. We can never truly know another’s experience. All people respond to trauma, tragedy, and loss in their own unique way.

Compassion fatigue results from prolonged empathetic exposure to others’ stress.

Psychologist Dr. Charles Figley defines compassion fatigue as a “state of exhaustion and dysfunction (biologically, psychologically, and socially) as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.” He also refers to it as a “disorder that affects those who do their work well.”

People serving in caregiving roles are exposed to a great deal of traumatic subject matter. All supporters—from first responders to compassionate listeners, helpers, counselors, chaplains, and medical professionals—can be vulnerable to neglecting their own needs.

Compassion fatigue can be one of the costs of caring.

As a Family Program staff member, you are continually dealing with traumatic events. You work directly with family members and the various degrees of distress involved in the deployment cycle. When there is a tragedy or loss, the ripple effect becomes significant. Those who are charged with serving family members are frequently hearing of traumatic events, including loss of life through battle, suicide, or serious injuries. In addition to dealing with their own personal reactions, caregivers often put their own needs aside to support those affected by the trauma. If there is not a self-care plan in place, the combination of empathy and exposure to traumatic events can lay the groundwork for compassion fatigue.

CHAPTER 2: Recognizing and Responding to Compassion Fatigue

In a March 2007 Newsweek article, U.S. Army officials stated that in Iraq in 2006, 33 percent of behavioral health personnel, 45 percent of primary care specialists, and 27 percent of chaplains reported “high” to “very high” levels of provider fatigue. Not only do we see service members returning with serious trauma reactions, but we see traumatized caregivers as well. By learning how to recognize and respond to these feelings of burnout or emotional fatigue, caregivers can better equip themselves to stay healthy while caring for others.

Caregivers can recognize compassion fatigue if they understand the symptoms.

While the symptoms of compassion fatigue can be disruptive, caregivers who learn to recognize them can create positive change and increase their resilience. It’s important to address these feelings of stress or burnout before they become too disruptive. Stress can have strong physical effects on the body, including distorted vision or hearing, slowed digestion, muscle tension, and high blood pressure and blood sugar. If left unchecked, these symptoms can become more serious, causing depression/anxiety; dehydration; heart damage; libido changes; changes in sleep patterns, appetite, and digestion; fatigue; and irritability.

Answer these questions to see if you may be at risk for compassion fatigue.

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, it’s likely time to put the same energy into caring for yourself that you put into caring for others.

Feelings of helplessness can come from an unrealistic sense of one’s own capabilities. Some of the most caring staff can be struck by compassion fatigue, and when it occurs, their previous sense of hope and optimism may diminish. The caregiver may feel ineffective and dispirited. This is a normal response to working as a helper—particularly when one is overloaded.

Click this link to view and download the Professional Quality of Life Scale. This survey tool measures levels of compassion satisfaction and fatigue in a caregiver’s professional life.

Self-evaluation can help caregivers determine whether they are fatigued.

If you’re still unsure whether you suffer from or are at risk for compassion fatigue, complete the following self-evaluation exercise:

Write down a list of all the things you do for others, including what you do at home and with friends and family. As you develop this list, try to identify the main stressors. Do your friends and family continually turn to you for support or help in dealing with crisis? Is it hard for you to say “no” to requests for help? How do you feel when you examine this list? Do you feel any areas of resentment?

Next, make a list of all the activities you do to “recharge your battery.” How do you nurture yourself? To whom do you turn when you need support?

Take a look at the two lists. What conclusions can you draw? Is there balance in your life? If you found the first list easier to develop, and if it is a lot longer, you are probably at risk for compassion fatigue.

The most effective response is prevention, but effective self-care goes a long way.

Unfortunately, compassion fatigue may not be obvious to the caregiver until she or he is already emotionally and physically exhausted. The good news is that there are always steps caregivers can take to turn things around and develop a more balanced ability to care for themselves while caring for others.

CHAPTER 3: Strategies for Managing Compassion Fatigue

“We think we can do it all, that we can take on just one more thing. The reality of that is there’s always one more, and we’ll never be able to accomplish what we need to without taking the time and giving ourselves the permission to say, ‘No, I need to take some time so I can then help others.’” By learning strategies to manage stress and creating a self-care plan, caregivers can reduce the risk that their personal and professional lives will be negatively affected by compassion fatigue.

Take care of your body.

Take care of your mind.

Create a support system in others.

Create a support system in yourself.


Caregivers are often passionate about their work. They empathize with others’ traumas and can often internalize stress. By identifying and managing signs of compassion fatigue, caregivers can maintain their own well-being while caring for others. Thank you for taking the time to view “Help for the Helper: Dealing with Compassion Fatigue.”

If caregivers can manage compassion fatigue, they can continue to support others.

Now that you’ve completed this lesson, you should be able to:

Consult these resources for more information on compassion fatigue.