How to take care of yourself while helping others

Compassion fatigue can affect anyone watching and empathizing with people undergoing terrible events and disasters.
Compassion fatigue can affect anyone watching and empathizing with people undergoing terrible events and disasters. | Zohre Nemati, Unsplash

When the world’s problems and heartaches are on display for all to see, your own sorrow can feel suffocating.

Feeling others’ pain is something we do naturally as humans, but sometimes we can be so overwhelmed by taking care of others that we forget to take care of ourselves.

“Empathy burnout” or “compassion fatigue” are “common when individuals spend so much of their emotional strength relating deeply to the problems and stress of others that they forget to care for themselves,” according to Mental Health America.

The term “compassion fatigue” has been mostly used to describe family caretakers, health care workers and emergency personnel who feel so much empathy for a patient that they become traumatized, per the American Psychological Association.

Per a 2017 study published in the journal Aging & Mental Health, 59.5% of caregivers show signs of burnout or compassion fatigue.

Recently, professionals have widened the definition of compassion fatigue to reflect its ability to affect anyone watching and empathizing with populations undergoing terrible world events and disasters, reported CNN.

Rebecca Sachs, a clinical psychologist in New York City, explained to CNN her experience with compassion fatigue as a member of the Jewish faith watching the happenings in Israel.

She said it’s important to figure out “what is the level of engagement that can still lay a foundation for you to do valued actions to do something meaningful” while still taking the time to listen to your own needs.


What are signs of compassion fatigue?

Signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue are different for everybody, but the APA offers a few signs to watch out for.

  • Loss of productivity.

  • Depression.

  • Intrusive thoughts.

  • Jumpiness.

  • Tiredness.

  • Feeling like you’re trapped or always on edge.

Sachs would add irritability and difficulty in engaging with empathy to the list, per CNN.

Patricia Smith, who is a certified compassion fatigue specialist and educator, said in a TED Talk presentation that compassion fatigue can lead to emotional outbursts, guilt, drug abuse and physical ailments.


How do you reverse compassion fatigue?

“Healing is an inside job — from the inside out, not from the outside in,” Smith said in her TED Talk.

She says that the mentality that other’s needs should always come before personal needs is false and needs to be corrected.

“The rhythm of a healthy caregiver is fill up, empty out, fill up, empty out, fill up, empty out every single day,” said Smith.

Smith recommends these eight ways to heal from compassion fatigue.

  1. Engage in authentic, sustainable self-care.

  2. Use empathetic discernment to learn the things that hurt us.

  3. Ask for help from professionals.

  4. Strengthen resiliency.

  5. Work to balance work and personal life.

  6. Embrace spirituality.

  7. Be mindful.

  8. Be grateful.