What are the 5 Stages of Compassion Fatigue?

the stages of compassion fatigue

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Caring for others often comes at a price. When we are exposed to other people’s traumas and stressors for too long, constantly empathizing and providing support, we can experience a diminished capacity to empathize and show compassion.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue refers to emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that affects people who care for others and witness their pain and suffering. It is also known as vicarious traumatization.

Watching other people suffer can make us feel stressed out or traumatized. When stress becomes too much for us, it may hurt both our emotions and our bodies. And when that happens, it can make it harder for us to understand and relate to other people’s feelings.

What Causes Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue results from prolonged, continual exposure to the suffering and stress of others, particularly in professions such as crisis response, nursing, and caring.

You may feel emotionally depleted, helpless, irritable, withdrawn, or angry. High-stress working conditions, a lack of adequate emotional and institutional support, and insufficient self-care and coping strategies can aggravate compassion fatigue, resulting in a decreased ability to feel and express empathy for others.

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People who work in high-stress professions or trauma-related contexts, such as first responders, healthcare professionals, and caregivers, are more likely to experience compassion fatigue as a result of the demands of assisting others who are suffering.

Recognizing the Signs of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue may impact your physical and emotional well-being, as well as your performance and productivity. It is, therefore, essential to recognize it before it takes its toll. Common signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • Emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Mood swings
  • Increased irritability and anger
  • Poor concentration and memory 
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Reduced feelings of empathy 
  • Feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness
  • Physical complaints such as upset stomach or headaches
  • Loss of pleasure in activities you once enjoyed 
  • Isolation and withdrawal from social interactions 
  • Decreased job satisfaction and a sense of inefficacy 
  • Dread of going to work 
  • Negative coping mechanisms such as alcohol or substance abuse 

Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout: What’s the Difference?

While compassion fatigue and burnout are connected, there are critical differences in their triggers and root causes.

Compassion fatigue stems from extended exposure to the trauma or suffering of others. This can result in emotional and physical strain and a reduced capacity to empathize and sympathize with others. On the other hand, burnout is a state of complete emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress, which is frequently work-related. It typically develops over time, triggering emotional numbness, cynicism, detachment, and a sense of failure at work.

The 5 Stages of Compassion Fatigue

preventing compassion fatigue

People who experience compassion fatigue go through several stages. Recognizing where you fall on a trajectory might help prevent compassion fatigue from progressing into burnout and illness. 

1) Zealot Phase: The Initial Burst of Compassion 

The majority of people are in the zealot stage early in their careers. When you start a new job or switch careers, you are usually excited, devoted, and enthusiastic about serving others. You are willing to volunteer, work extra hours, and go above and beyond to help others. You feel hopeful that your efforts will make a difference.

2) Irritability Phase: The Onset of Emotional Strain 

During this stage, you may start noticing flaws in the circumstances and the people around you. As a result, you might begin to lose your energy and passion. You may start experiencing burnout at this stage. Some signs may include taking shortcuts, avoiding interactions with clients and coworkers, making mistakes at work, and starting to feel cynical and resentful.

3) Withdrawal Phase: Emotional and Social Retreat 

When you become overwhelmed by your job responsibilities, you may lose your enthusiasm and passion. People you serve may become a source of frustration and annoyance. You may be exhausted all the time, neglect self-care, family, and friends, and have relationship problems. You may feel hopeless or become insensitive to the emotional pain of others, feeling incapable of empathizing or offering comfort.

4) Zombie Phase: Emotional Numbness and Disconnection

During the zombie phase, your hopelessness can turn into irritation and anger. You may detest people you care for and isolate yourself from clients, coworkers, friends, and family. You may resort to dissociation as a coping mechanism with emotional overload, feeling disconnected from your emotions, experiences, and people around you.

5) Pathology Phase: Physical and Mental Health Impact 

You may feel constantly overwhelmed if you have reached the pathologic phase. So, you can take two paths from here. You may either sink deeper into compassion fatigue and somatic illnesses, become addicted to alcohol or substances, struggle with mental illness, and leave your profession. Or, you can take a turn towards self-care and renewal. You can learn how to protect yourself and build your resilience.

Addressing 5 Stages of Compassion Fatigue: Prevention and Recovery

Self-care. Prioritizing self-care is the best antidote to compassion fatigue. Prioritize your well-being with adequate nutrition, sleep, and relaxation strategies. Practice mindfulness, yoga, and exercise, and minimize exposure to stress and trauma outside of work (social media, news, movies, TV, etc.).

Boundaries. Set healthy boundaries and learn to say “no” to excessive demands. 

Awareness: Recognize the signs of compassion fatigue early. Practice mindfulness to check in with your emotions without being self-judgmental.

Gratitude: Reflect on three good things or things you feel thankful for each day. 

Switch off. Set aside some time during the day for “me-time.” Unplug from social media and technology and rest or do something you like.

Seek help. Reach out for help, whether by delegating tasks at work and home or seeking coaching or psychotherapy.

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How to Heal from Compassion Fatigue

It is okay to feel overwhelmed, and it is okay to seek help. A skilled counselor can help you identify the signs of compassion fatigue early and understand your emotional and physical responses to stress. Sharing your feelings, concerns, and experiences openly can reduce your emotional burden. In addition, working with a life coach can equip you with strategies for coping, increasing your resilience and ability to manage stress effectively.If you feel overwhelmed and unable to empathize and connect with others, you are not alone. I can help you heal from compassion fatigue and transform your life, so contact me to set up a free, empowering conversation.

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Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood is a Certified Life Coach, and best-selling author. Her mission is to empower high-performing adults and teens to become resilient self-leaders by reducing stress and anxiety, overcoming imposter syndrome, working through trauma, and re-discovering their AuthenticMe®.

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