West Queen West CAMH Wednesday: Is there a cost to protecting, caring for and saving others? Beware of Compassion Fatigue

January 9, 2018

Is there a cost to protecting, caring for and saving others? Beware of Compassion Fatigue

By Dr. Katy Kamkar, Clinical Psychologist at CAMH, Director at Badge of Life Canada

What happens to our helpers, who are continuously hearing, seeing or witnessing tragedies, pain and suffering while also providing care, support and protection?

Being continuously exposed to suffering and loss of life, or becoming excessively preoccupied with these things can set the stage for a condition called compassion fatigue, also known as vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress. The term was originally used in the 80s but has been adapted to describe this condition within medical professionals such as physicians, psychologists, nurses or emergency workers, but now we increasingly see it occurring in other helping professions such as police and first responders.

Recognizing early warning signs and seeking early intervention are important as compassion fatigue can negatively impact your personal, social and occupational functioning and increase risk for burnout and mental health conditions.

Some Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue:

  • Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless or powerless when hearing of others’ suffering
  • Feelings of anger, irritability, sadness and anxiety
  • Feeling detached from our surroundings or from our physical or emotional experience
  • Feeling emotionally, psychologically or physically exhausted, burnt out or numb
  • Physical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches
  • Reduced empathy
  • Feeling hypersensitive or insensitive to stories we hear
  • Limited tolerance for stress
  • Self-isolation and withdrawal
  • Relationship conflict
  • Feeling less efficient or productive at work
  • Reduced pleasure in activities we used to enjoy
  • Difficulty sleeping and nightmares
  • Difficulty concentrating, focusing or making decisions
  • Self-medicating and increase in substance use.

Some helpful tips for coping:


  • Be aware and mindful of your thoughts, feelings, physiological changes in your body and any emotions you might be experiencing.
  • Focus on your breathing and slow down your breathing rate
  • Use visual reminders to stay connected with yourself and appreciate your positives (e.g., photos; flowers).
  • Put negative thoughts, worries and stressors into perspective and take a broader approach to better evaluate them, identify your resources, learning and strengths to help you make healthier decisions and move forward.
  • Focus on what you have control over. Take time to appreciate yourself and your hard work. Look at your positives and remind yourself that you don’t have full control over most outcomes.
  • Accept that pain and suffering are part of life and you don’t always have a lot of control.

Practical self-care

  • Eat healthy, set time for some physical exercise and be kind to yourself
  • Engage in proper sleep hygiene
  • Seek quality social support
  • Schedule meaningful activities for yourself
  • Set realistic goals and expectations and practice flexibility when circumstances change
  • Keep a sense of humour
  • Focus on balancing your work and personal life

Emotional self-care

  • Set healthy personal and emotional boundaries in terms of what works for you and what doesn’t, and only take on what you feel you can handle
  • Keep in mind that your emotional boundaries will likely change over time.
  • Maintain your compassion, connection and empathy without overly taking on someone else’s pain or suffering or tragedy.

Compassion fatigue can easily affect those in helping professions, and includes medical professionals, first responders, and even family caregivers. It’s important that anyone who is susceptible takes proper steps to protect themselves, and that they are mindful of the effects on their own lives. As much as we want to help others and provide nurturing care, we must also look inward and ensure that we are meeting our own mental health needs.

Thank you to all our helpers, but know you’re not alone. Helpers also need help sometimes.