Are you one of those people who always seems to be on the listening end of a sob story? You know, the broken hearted friend who just got dumped calls you at all hours of the night. Or you could just be sitting innocently waiting for a bus and a stranger proceeds to tell you his tale of woe. After constantly dealing with situations like these are you beginning to feel burned out? If so you might be suffering from compassion fatigue.

What Is It?

The scientific term for compassion fatigue is secondary traumatic stress or STS. When repeatedly faced with situations that require great empathy or sympathy, over time it is possible to suffer from a form of burnout. Eventually you become less compassionate, less caring or cynical and apathetic. It can affect you physically, mentally and emotionally much like stress. It can lead to changes in diet and sleep, mental exhaustion and emotional isolation.

When repeatedly faced with situations that require great empathy or sympathy, over time it is possible to suffer from a form of burnout.

Who gets compassion fatigue? Practically anyone can get it, but it is most common among people involved in the helping or caregiving professions. Doctors, nurses, teachers and therapists are particularly susceptible. But if you are a caring or nurturing type of person who feels other people’s pain, you could be at risk, particularly if you give away a lot of your time and energy.

How Does It Develop?

Like most forms of stress, compassion fatigue develops over time. Usually it starts with several acute instances. For example a friend experiences an accident or trauma and you help to pick up the pieces. While he or she is healing, you offer support by listening or helping out. Over a long period of time it can wear on you and stress you out, eventually developing into a chronic condition.

Compassion fatigue can arise from the constant bombardment of trauma experienced by others. Witnessing many distressing events over time can ultimately numb you to their pain and suffering. Consider the habitual stream of news that points to the world’s endless problems: war, crime, economic issues, starvation and other forms of strife. Seeing this on a constant basis can make your empathy meter plummet after awhile. At some point you get tired and apathetic because you feel there is nothing you can do to help—you are powerless.

Do You Have It?

Is it possible that you have compassion fatigue? With all the anguish and suffering in today’s world it is not uncommon to become cynical, zone out and withdraw. Take a self-assessment and evaluate your feelings and attitudes. Do you feel like you have less empathy or sympathy for people and their troubles? Do you often feel overwhelmed by others’ needs? Are you often drained? Do you find it hard to recover when exposed to distressing stories, images or situations? If you answered yes to these questions, it is quite possible that you suffer from compassion fatigue.

Dealing With It

If you feel that you’re experiencing compassion fatigue, there is no need to blame or feel shame. This syndrome doesn’t happen because you don’t care, it happens because you do care—sometimes too much. Consider it a defense mechanism or a wake up call to engage in some much needed self-care.

One of the best ways to deal with compassion fatigue is to care for yourself. Remove yourself from any demanding situations for a while and focus on your needs. Enlist the help of a counselor or support group if necessary. Make time for you and implement some lifestyle changes. Try some stress reduction techniques like exercise and meditation. Participate in some recreational activities and hobbies. And finally develop good mental and emotional boundaries so that you can help others without losing yourself.