What is compassion fatigue?

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is considered a type of stress resulting from the relationship of therapeutic help, empathy and emotional commitment. This term makes visible a reality that specifically affects professionals who work with the objective of alleviating the suffering in life of the people they serve, apart from being vulnerable to other types of stress or attrition from work.

It is the stress generated by being in contact with patients who are in a state of deep pain: understanding this as physical, psychological, social and spiritual suffering and that require deep care.


  • 1. Background
  • 2 When compassion fatigue appears
  • 3 The key is empathy
  • 4 Signs that characterize compassion fatigue


The "Compassion Fatigue"Or"empathy wear”Is a recent concept that was introduced in 1995 in the area of ​​health by Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University (New Orleans). This one observed that Health professionals (nurses, therapists, social workers, etc.), who worked with traumatized people in the area of ​​mental health, As time went by, they indirectly experienced the effects of trauma suffered by the people they attended or cared for.; For this reason, this concept has been included and developed in various studies on trauma.

When compassion fatigue appears

Compassion fatigue appears abruptly and acutely, and is characterized by three groups of symptoms very similar to those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder suffered by patients or people with trauma.

  1. Reexperimentation (revive, remember with a great emotional charge).
  2. Avoidance and psychic dullness (attitudes of physical and affective distancing from people, not just patients).
  3. Hyperactivation or hyperarousal (voltage state, permanent alert and reactivity)

Compassion fatigue It is the end result of a progressive and cumulative process It is caused by prolonged, continuous and intense contact with patients, the use of oneself, and exposure to stress.

It develops from a state of discomfort, which if it does not disappear through adequate rest, leads to stress that exceeds resistance levels, and ultimately becomes fatigue due to compassion.

Compassion fatigue is a state, where the compassionate energy spent exceeds its restorative processes and the recovery power is lost. All these states manifest themselves with marked physical, social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual changes that increase in intensity progressively.

Many psychological emotions or stress were associated with compassion fatigue, either as a causative or consequential factor. Figley indicated that compassion fatigue is a phenomenon that It occurs due to poor self-care, trauma from the unresolved past, inability or refusal to control stressors and lack of job satisfaction.

The key is empathy

Empathy is a key variable word to understand the picture: that ability that gives quality to the intervention is the one that increases the vulnerability to wear out.

The human brain is structured with an innate ability to transcend the borders of the skin of its own body. The neurobiological mechanisms involved in the empathic process suggest that it is triggered by imitation mechanisms that appear in those who observe sensations similar to those observed.

It is speculated that the emotional impact of listening to traumatic stories could be transmitted through deep or unconscious psychological processes within the levels of compassion and empathy that the professional and caregiver possesses; Thus, Compassion Fatigue appears as a result of providing high levels of energy and compassion to those who suffer, and not seeing results of improvement in the sick person cared for, helped or assisted.

Somehow I feel in me, what another person feels, and when the emotions to which a person is exposed are of deep suffering, the impact is evident.

Signs that characterize compassion fatigue


  • Difficulties in attention and memory
  • Relive the trauma
  • Shaking beliefs
  • Perception of vulnerability
  • Distrust
  • Reduction of pleasant and fun leisure activities
  • Isolation of family and friends


  • Experience of intense fear, sadness and anger, which can cause vulnerability
  • Hopelessness
  • Loss of joy and happiness


  • Hyperactivity reactions of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (palpitations, gastrointestinal discomfort, constipation, headaches)
  • Diffuse pain due to muscle tension
  • Tiredness and / or feeling that tiredness is not restorative
  • In the case of women, exacerbation of menstrual discomfort


  • Perception of poor professional training
  • Tendency to direct the intervention towards areas not related to suffering
  • Asylum of the rest of the team, feeling of misunderstanding
  • Absenteeism and work leave