Updated 09 October 2017

Compassion fatigue and what to do about it

Sponsored: Compassion fatigue is a type of care-giver burnout and a feeling of being overwhelmed by the situation and its demands.


Compassion fatigue is characterised by a gradual lessening of compassion over time and has far-reaching negative effects on productivity – professionally and personally. The problem can be exacerbated by unrelated bad news in the media and especially on TV.

Many caregivers deal with the complex emotions evoked by their demanding work situations by simply stuffing down or repressing all that is disturbing.

We find this also with doctors, trauma workers, people who care for terminally ill patients, people who work in old-age homes, social workers and the police.

Remember that stress increases nutrient needs enormously and that unless those nutrients are replenished more than adequately, your body will not be able to cope, and the weakest link in the chain will start a process of breakdown. 

Common symptoms are:

Irritability, short-temperedness and other mood disturbances

Withdrawal from others and denial of problems

Substance abuse used to mask feelings

Poor self-care (i.e., hygiene, appearance)

Sleeplessness or nightmares

Mental and physical fatigue

Being preoccupied; forgetful, difficulty with concentration and lack of focus

A pervasive negative attitude 

How to deal with compassion fatigue

“With support, insightful information, and authentic self-care, you can begin to understand the complexity of the emotions you've been juggling and, most likely, suppressing.” –

Awareness and mindfulness are essential elements in dealing with compassion fatigue. Awareness means acknowledging when you become tired or overwhelmed, knowing the pitfalls implicit in the situation and being prepared to take action on your own behalf.

Mindfulness is about being wide-awake and present in the moment. It is as if you are operating on “manual” and not on “automatic” and can choose your responses in every situation carefully. It is about responding accurately and carefully rather than reacting to your environment.

Authentic and sustainable self-care begins with you:

• Accept where you are on your path at all times.

• Breathe deeply and consciously.

• Be assertive and know your boundaries and limits. Be prepared to protect them.

• Be kind to yourself.

• Learn to ask for help.

• Exchange information and feelings with people who can validate you.

• Take positive action to make your environment pleasant – use colours and fragrances to enhance your space.

• Make sure you sleep at least seven hours/night and have some me-time.

• Eat the best possible food you can afford.

• Take extra supplements – especially B-vitamins, magnesium and calcium 

• Get some exercise – walking, swimming or yoga are great.

• Choose a positive attitude. Focus on what went well, look for the positive, practise gratitude and forgiveness.

• Meditate and recharge regularly.

• Find meaning and spiritual purpose in your circumstances.

Be kind to yourself and make sure your own energy is replenished in meaningful ways. Remember, you cannot give what you haven’t got. 

By Dr Hannetjie van Zyl-Edeling, Counselling Psychologist.

Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project ... where the healing begins.       

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Incontinence Expert

Prenevin Govender completed his MBChB at the University of Cape Town in 2001. He obtained his Fellowship of the College of Urologists in 2009 and graduated with distinction for a Masters in Medicine from the University of Cape Town in 2010. His special interests include laparoscopic, pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence surgery. He consults full-time at Life Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont.

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