What Is ‘Compassion Fatigue’ and How Do You Avoid It?

There once was a 13-year-old boy named Jason whose single mother had a drinking problem. Ever since the death of his father, Jason hoped, wished and prayed that his mother would be able to conquer the drinking problem that resulted from her inability to cope with the loss of her husband. On occasion, there would be glimmers of hope when it seemed like his mother may be getting better, but the disease of addiction always reared its ugly head.

By the time he graduated from high school, Jason felt that it was his responsibility to take care of his mother. He noticed the brief glimmers of sobriety became less and less frequent until he lost hope for his mother’s recovery altogether. As he fell deeper into the depths of hopelessness, Jason decided he would have a few drinks as a way to dampen his sadness. After all, if alcohol would continue to be his mother’s emotional crutch, it hardly seemed fair that he would have to bear such immense emotional weight on his own.

Jason and his mother are fictional characters created solely for the purpose of illustrating a condition that’s extremely common among the loved ones of individuals who suffer from addiction. This condition — known as compassion fatigue — can be a major detriment to individuals as well as families, which is why it’s important to know what compassion fatigue is and how to avoid or overcome it.

An Overwhelming Sense of Hopelessness

The effects of addiction extend far beyond the addicted individual. Although the disease originates in the brain, the side effects of addiction ripple through the lives of families, communities and entire regions. It’s for this reason that addiction is, at turns, referred to as “an epidemic”1 and “the family disease.”2 Even so, the extent to which addiction affects an addict’s loved ones is often vastly underestimated.

While it’s certainly difficult to live with an addiction, having an addicted loved one is an extremely intense and very emotional experience, too. Merely learning that a loved one suffers from addiction is heart-wrenching. To make matters worse, one must contend with the fact that addiction cannot be cured and that recovery is something the addict must do himself or herself. It’s a time of extremely high stress and anxiety. But many addicts resist recovery initially, so the worry and fear is ongoing. As the situation fails to improve over time, compassion fatigue may set in.

Compassion fatigue — also known as secondary traumatic stress, secondary traumatization and vicarious traumatization3 — is state of exhaustion and biological, psychological and social dysfunction that occurs when a person is repeatedly exposed to trauma and stress. In other words, it’s a substantial shift in one’s worldview wherein a person becomes indifferent to suffering and overtly pessimistic because he or she has been continuously exposed to stress, trauma, and suffering.4 Rather than being able to empathize with the helplessness of trauma, the individual feels helpless and hopeless virtually all the time. Occasionally, the expression “burned out” is used as an analogue to compassion fatigue, but burnout is much less severe while compassion fatigue has far greater implications.

Compassion fatigue — also known as secondary traumatic stress, secondary traumatization and vicarious traumatization — is state of exhaustion and biological, psychological and social dysfunction that occurs when a person is repeatedly exposed to trauma and stress.

Although it’s particularly common among the loved ones of addicts, compassion fatigue is often exhibited in physicians, nurses, therapists, psychologists, police officers, teachers, social workers, animal welfare workers, emergency first responders and many other individuals who frequently encounter people or animals in distress. The potential for compassion fatigue comes from a place of caring and empathizing with others, but most people aren’t likely to find themselves in the type of situation in which they’d develop compassion fatigue. This condition develops as a person becomes overwhelmed by the trauma he or she encounters, eventually reaching the point of experiencing the trauma as if it’s happening to him or her directly.

Preventing Compassion Fatigue

The effects of compassion fatigue range from minor to debilitating. Many individuals who suffer from compassion fatigue have a tendency to suppress their emotions, isolate themselves from others and even have trouble concentrating. When the fatigue is severe, it can lead to poor self-care, the use of alcohol or drugs to quell emotions, difficulty finding joy in previously enjoyable experiences, recurring nightmares, physical ailments due to stress weakening the immune system, perpetual exhaustion and many other effects.5

Fortunately, compassion fatigue can be prevented as well as overcome. Arguably the most important strategy happens to be the most straightforward: Talk it out. Compassion fatigue develops when a person takes someone’s distress onto himself or herself and then continues to accumulate more and more of it. However, talking — whether to a therapist, at a support group or with a trusted friend — is therapeutic, almost serving as a way to emotionally purge. This is particularly important when it comes to dealing with the experience of having an addicted loved one.

It’s important that a loved one’s addiction doesn’t become the sum of one’s entire life. While it’s certainly important to show support and concern to the addict, a person’s addiction should not consume the lives of his or her loved ones or else they stand a strong chance of developing compassion fatigue. Having interests and pursuits outside of the home, ones that don’t involve the addict or his or her addiction, provides a much-needed respite from the intensely emotional circumstances.

Meanwhile, a lot can be accomplished by taking the time to learn more about addiction and recovery. When a person discovers that a loved one suffers from addiction, there’s a tendency to feel responsible, in part or whole, for getting the addict help. However, recovery is something the addict must ultimately choose to do on his or her own. Until then, there’s no way to take the addict’s pain away and no cure that can be administered. Recognizing what one can and can’t do in this situation will help to keep the addict’s distress from becoming overwhelming. It’s like the old adage that says a person must care for himself or herself if he or she hopes to be able to provide care for someone else.

Just as there are resources available for addicts to get help for their addictions, there are resources available for the loved ones of addicts. While helping an addicted loved one is greatly beneficial, nobody should take the burden of someone else’s addiction onto himself or herself. Compassion fatigue is real. It’s a condition that jeopardizes a person’s health and well-being. However, talking to someone, having other personal interests and endeavors, and recognizing what can and can’t be done for an addicted loved one are the best ways to maintain your own mental health.


1. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/
2. https://www.ncadd.org/family-friends/there-is-help/family-disease
3. https://www.counseling.org/resources/library/Selected%20Topics/Crisis/Simpson.htm
4. https://www.tendacademy.ca/what-is-compassion-fatigue/
5. http://www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/symptoms.html

Written by Dane O’Leary