Empathy Fatigue: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Do you feel like you have nothing left to give? Does it seem like the world is swallowing you whole or that it’s just one traumatic experience after another?

As we round the corner and finish up 2022, many of us are still struggling with our mental health. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that the COVID-19 pandemic increased the prevalence of anxiety and depression symptoms by 25% worldwide.

Research shows that teachers, health care providers, first responders, and mental health professionals are already at a heightened risk of developing compassion fatigue. It makes sense- they’re on the front lines of traumatic events, and work-related stress often triggers vicarious trauma.

But today’s professionals are exhibiting symptoms of secondary traumatic stress disorder at exorbitant rates. If you’re struggling to feel empathy- or if you feel a sense of apathy or dread about today’s world- you may be suffering more than you realize.

What Is Empathy Fatigue?

Empathy isn’t an infinite state. At some point, there’s a ceiling effect where the negative effects of human suffering cause our feelings to begin to turn against us.

In other words, social neuroscience confirms that, yes, it’s possible to care too much.

Empathy fatigue refers to feeling unable to care about a person or situation due to emotional exhaustion. This is a direct result of ongoing exposure to secondary traumatic stress and the negative emotions associated with it.

Emotional fatigue symptoms vary in type and intensity, but they may include:

  • feeling overwhelmed
  • feeling angry at the state of the world
  • feeling disconnected or growing numb
  • cynicism when it comes to stressful events
  • assuming things won’t get better in life
  • chronic thoughts about the pain and suffering of others
  • sleep problems
  • physical fatigue
  • being unable to respond empathically to others
  • having difficulty paying attention to basic tasks

People with empathy fatigue often report feeling like they’re pouring from an empty cup. Everything may be lumped together as ‘bad news.’ Often, they feel guilty over their feelings, but they also feel exhausted by them.

What Causes Empathy Fatigue?

No single stressor causes empathy or compassion fatigue. Instead, experts examine clusters of risk factors when looking at how repeated exposure to trauma affects people.

Lack of acknowledgment: Helping professionals become deeply involved in the well-being of others. They sacrifice immense time and energy, and they often go above and beyond what the job description entails. But if they don’t feel respected for the hard work they provide, it can feel demoralizing. It may seem as if their efforts don’t matter.

Poor compensation: Some of the hardest-working professionals simply aren’t paid well enough. This is a systemic problem that affects everyone from medical residents to professional counselors to healthcare professionals.

Over-empathic tendencies: Some people are naturally more inclined toward empathy than others. They often report feeling emotions deeply. In their work, they may recognize a patient or client’s woundedness and make it a personal mission to help them heal. While this is undoubtedly noble, it can stretch out compassion and lead to fatigue.

Personal life stress: If you’re dealing with adversity in your own life, issues at work may compound the stress. Traumatic experiences, therefore, may feel more vivid.

Poor boundaries: Some people experience empathy fatigue because they struggle to set limits with themselves or others. They may overextend themselves at work, causing higher levels of physical and emotional exhaustion.

How Compassion Fatigue Affects Working Professionals

Emotional and physical exhaustion can have an adverse impact on everything you do. Here are some of the side effects:

Negative emotions: You may feel cynical, angry, or disconnected from your work. These emotions can seep into your personal life and make it difficult to connect with friends and family.

Inability to practice self-care: Many people experiencing empathy fatigue find self-care challenging. They often feel so exhausted by the end of the day that they just want to zone out. You may find yourself engaging in compulsive vices to numb yourself from your occupational stress.

Work impairments: Empathy fatigue can cause professionals to make careless mistakes on the job. Often, this results from a combination of fatigue, feeling overworked and undervalued, and complete empathy burnout.

Therapy For Emotional Exhaustion and Empathy Fatigue

There’s no doubt that empathy fatigue can affect every part of your well-being. Your emotional pain is real, and vicarious traumatization is a risk factor associated with all caring professions.

Therapy for empathy fatigue is multifaceted. First, recognizing one’s empathy fatigue triggers is critical. What situations, for instance, aggravate a negative emotional response?

It’s also important to practice more self-compassion. Whether you are a caregiver for a loved one or a member of an acute crisis response team, you have to learn how to wear your own oxygen mask.

Therapy can help you better access positive emotions and improve how you cope with stress. Contact me today to get started!

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Austin, TX 78759

(512) 988-3363

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