Struggling to feel empathy? Compassion fatigue might be why

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Published: Jul. 8, 2022 at 4:43 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) - Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary trauma, happens when someone is repeatedly exposed to other people’s experiences.

Hearing about sad or scary things can cause distress, even if it’s not a firsthand experience. Since compassion fatigue happens after repeated exposure, it’s most often recognized in medical professionals or teachers, but anyone can fall victim to it.

“The helper starts to experience a numbness or sort of an inability to feel compassion for others. It can have a wide range of mental and emotional effects,” said Andrea Kendall, Licensed Clinical Social Worker with Augusta Health.

Those symptoms often persist, and they can get quite serious.

“People can experience symptoms similar to direct PTSD, sort of emotional dysregulation, not being able to sleep, anxiety, depression,” she said.

Nicole Curtis, Licensed Professional Counselor for Sentara’s Optima Employee Assistance Program, said it’s important to stay on top of compassion fatigue because it can turn into burnout.

“In times of compassion fatigue, don’t work harder. Play harder,” said Curtis.

Whatever that means for you: taking time off work, learning new hobbies, journaling or volunteering.

“Making sure you get adequate sleep, have good nutrition, good physical activity, trying to find ways to relax, and getting support socially as well,” said Curtis.

If symptoms of compassion fatigue persist for weeks with no sign of improvement, you should seek the help of a therapist. In the Valley, Sentara and Augusta Health offer behavioral health support, as does the Valley Community Services Board, along with many state and national resources.

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