There are thousands of causes, charities, missions, and movements all over the world. While these are great causes, it can be daunting to try to muster care and support for even a fraction of them. As Christians, we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus and care for our neighbors as ourselves (Romans 12:13). What happens when caring for our neighbor overwhelms us, and we either become consumed with activism or drowned in apathy?
One thing we become more vulnerable to is compassion fatigue: the unique stress that results from taking on the adversities and struggles of others. Compassion fatigue is an easily misunderstood phenomenon. Many tend to associate it with certain occupations; while it’s very common to see compassion fatigue in nursing, emergency response, pastoral roles, and other careers with high exposure to trauma and suffering, it’s more widespread than you might think. Not only are we all surrounded by stories of disease, war, and mass-casualty events – many of us are in situations where we’re constantly giving of ourselves to care for others.
Burnout vs. compassion fatigue
While they sound similar, burnout and compassion fatigue are not the same thing. While both can be extremely detrimental to someone’s quality of life, they’re triggered by different experiences.
You're more likely to deal with burnout when you feel overwhelmed by the accumulation of stress, whether it be from a work setting or in your home life. Things like working extra hours or worrying about your bills can often lead to burnout over time. While it's similar to burnout, different stressors lead to compassion fatigue. Often thought of as “empathy overload,” compassion fatigue is the direct result of carrying the burdens of others and extending care without properly taking care of ourselves. Here are some telltale signs you may be experiencing compassion fatigue:
- Feeling overwhelmed or helpless when hearing about the suffering of others
- Feelings of anger, irritability, or anxiety
- Noticeable increase or decrease in sensitivity to emotional stories and experiences
- Lower tolerance for stress
- Ruminating or dwelling on the suffering of others
- Thoughts of self-blame (“If only I could do more to help.”)
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Increased headaches
- Feelings of nausea or dizziness
- Feeling tense or on-edge
- Difficulty sleeping
- Self-medicating behaviors such as increased substance use
- Increased conflict with family and friends
- Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
If you recognize any of these symptoms of compassion fatigue, don’t be discouraged – there are coping strategies and self-care practices that will help you recover, and maybe even prevent compassion fatigue from coming back in the future.
How to treat compassion fatigue
If anyone in Biblical times was vulnerable to compassion fatigue, it was Jesus. Day in and day out, people approached him asking for advice, prayer, and healing. He met people who were rejected, disease-ridden, and even on the brink of death. He sat with people, heard their troubling stories, and mourned with them. He was no stranger to trauma.
Jesus shows us how to deal with compassion fatigue in the Bible: He took time away to recharge and made sure his disciples did the same (Mark 6:30-32). He knew rest was vital and set the example of taking time for self-care.
It’s essential to take care of yourself to recover from compassion fatigue. Five things you can start doing for yourself today are:
- Get enough sleep – at least 8 hours.
- Eat a nutritious diet – prioritize healthy foods and make sure you’re eating enough!
- Get enough physical activity – 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days per week is the recommendation.
- Take time to relax – turn off the news, put your devices away, and do something that calms you down.
- Spend time in a social setting with your friends and family – isolation can often make things worse.
If you think you may be experiencing compassion fatigue, one of the best things you can do is talk to a counselor. Psychologists and other mental health professionals are uniquely equipped to help you start overcoming compassion fatigue and move back into a healthier state of mind. If you need help finding a counselor near you, contact us and we’ll connect you with mental health professionals in your area.
Another key to moving forward from compassion fatigue is to give yourself grace. You can’t solve the whole world’s problems – nobody can! But you can do small things that make a big difference for your neighbors. There’s nothing wrong with doing for one person what you wish you could do for many. Compassion is compassion, no matter how small the act.
Compassion fatigue can take a toll physically and emotionally, but there are good habits you can start today that will help clear up your mind and restore your well-being. Check out the Live Changed Podcast for a candid conversation about how Christians can respond to injustice and suffering in the world without falling into compassion fatigue. You can also check out these resources that will help you overcome harmful thought patterns and inspire you to become more like Jesus:
3 Steps to Overcome Our Harmful Thoughts
What Does Compassion Like Jesus Really Look Like?
2 Steps to Combat Your Anxious Thoughts
The Live Changed Podcast is produced by LCBC Church. LCBC stands for Lives Changed By Christ. We are one church in multiple locations across Pennsylvania. Subscribe to the Live Changed Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts!