10 subtle signs you’re dealing with compassion fatigue, according to psychology

Are you in a position where you’re caring for others? 

Feeling stressed and don’t know why? 

Do you feel overwhelmed and in need of a break? 

If you’re nodding at the above, it could be that you are suffering from compassion fatigue, a form of stress that comes from the sustained demands of caring of other people.

This is a serious problem that can end up undermining not only your ability to continue providing support to others, but also the quality of your own physical and mental health. 

And there are several symptoms you should be on the lookout for, including physical, emotional, and behavioural signs.  

Here are 10 subtle signs you’re dealing with compassion fatigue, according to psychology. 

1) You’re feeling increasingly numb

Are you feeling more and more apathetic to people and what’s going on around you?  

The first sign you could be grappling with compassion fatigue is emotional numbness. 

Perhaps your ability to sympathise or empathize with people has decreased and this has reduced your interest in trying to help or support them.  

Chances are you are feeling too burdened, and this numbness is your brain’s way of switching off and protecting you from further stress. 

Remember, compassion fatigue is tension that comes from frequent contact with, and empathy for, people who have experienced trauma.  

This means you can often become preoccupied with the suffering of others, and this is a huge load to bear over time.  

2) You want to sleep but can’t

Feeling exhausted and constantly worn out are also indicative of compassion fatigue.  

This is because the stress you’re experiencing is leading to insomnia and disrupting the quality sleep you need to operate and feel at your best.

A lack of sleep could also result in reduced decision-making abilities.

So, if you find yourself blinking at the ceiling night after night, this could help you understand why.  It also makes the next sign pretty obvious…  

3) You’re increasingly anxious or depressed

Has the pleasure all but disappeared from your life? 

How about the joy? 

If you’ve been hit with compassion fatigue you’re bound to be feeling extremely down or extremely stressed (or maybe both). 

All the things that once made you happy don’t anymore… you fail to muster a genuine smile, even when confronted with someone or something you know should make you feel great.  

This is the inevitable fallout from emotional numbness.  

And it means… 

4) You’re irritable as hell

Another sign that comes with no surprises when you’re not getting enough shut eye! 

But seriously, stress and lack of sleep is a powerful recipe for anger and frustration.  

You may feel calm and in control one minute and struggle to control your emotions the next. 

Unfortunately, constant mood swings are also a pretty solid sign of compassion fatigue kicking in.  

And whether you’re getting angry and upset due to witnessing the suffering of others and feeling helpless to do anything about it or because someone cut you off dangerously in traffic, being irritable is awful. 

And it can make you difficult to be around for others.

Being sleep deprived also means…

5) You’re always on edge

Emotionally drained 10 subtle signs you're dealing with compassion fatigue, according to psychology

If you’re feeling jumpy or becoming more easily startled, this can be another sign of compassion fatigue. 

Our bodies and minds need adequate rest to work to their potential, so prolonged exhaustion will result in you becoming hypervigilant and always being on edge.   

This feeling can lead to some dysfunctional coping mechanisms to offset the constant edginess. 

For instance, it can create a reliance on alcohol or drugs as a means of escapism. And, of course, using these substances ultimately antagonizes anxiety and increases stress.   

A dangerous road to go down if you’re already feeling vulnerable.  Onto the next subtle sign of compassion fatigue… 

6) Your relationships are changing

Or is it your attitude to your relationships? 

Either way, you are probably experiencing difficulties with personal relationships if you’re suffering from compassion fatigue. 

This is because you will have trouble separating personal and professional life and end up isolating yourself from others.  

You may even find yourself avoiding those you love and generally adore being around. This will result in you becoming emotionally disconnected and detached from the people that mean the most to you.

A dangerous thing at a time when you yourself need compassion and support the most!

7) You’re not as effective as you once were

How’s that to-do list looking? Is it getting longer by the day? 

If you’re feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, it’s no surprise that your productivity will take a nosedive. 

This could mean you’re taking more time off work, having difficulty concentrating, and not managing your time as effectively as you once did.

So, if you notice that you’re just not getting stuff done, psychology says it could be another sign that you’re suffering from compassion fatigue.  

8) You blame yourself

Do you find you’re being a lot harder on yourself than usual? 

Are you struggling with feeling like a failure to those you’re trying to help or care for?

If this sounds like where you’re currently experiencing, take it as another indicator that you may have developed compassion fatigue.  

Feelings of hopelessness and self-contempt are inevitable when you’re under this sort of psychological stress, and you’ll likely beat yourself up for not doing enough for others. 

But you feel this because deep down you really care, you’re just being too hard on yourself and blaming yourself because you don’t know what else to do.

And from internalizing your hopelessness to having it poison your mind… 

9) You’re struggling with dark thoughts 

Bottling up your negative emotions doesn’t only lead you to feel pessimistic; it can also lead to you experience some extremely intrusive thoughts.  

Having dark thoughts is the culmination of a decreased sense of purpose, heightened pessimism, emotional numbness and detachment, and exhaustion.

And a classic sign of compassion fatigue. 

You’re so mentally and psychologically exhausted that your consciousness catastrophizes looking for a way out.  

And bearing in mind that wherever the head goes, the body follows, here is the final subtle sign you could be suffering from compassion fatigue… 

10) You’re noticing physical symptoms

People who are empathetic can literally feel someone else’s pain.  

This is what makes them a powerful support for those who are enduring trauma.  

But this can also be damaging for the empath.

And while all the subtle signs of compassion fatigue we’ve covered have been mental and psychological, our final one concerns physical symptoms.  

These bodily signs could be headaches, muscle tightness, upset stomach, and changes in appetite.  

Tackle compassion fatigue now

Compassion fatigue doesn’t go away on its own.  

Ignoring the signs could lead to you to burnout, as well as severely undermining your desire to care appropriately for others.  

So, if you recognise the signs above, please take immediate action and speak to a mental health professional. 

Remember, you must take care of your own physical and psychological wellbeing before you can help someone else.

Picture of Niamh McNamara

Niamh McNamara

A freelance writer fascinated with human nature and social dynamics, Niamh read literature, history, and philosophy at university before spending time in journalism and PR. Armed with a passion for words and ideas, and a healthy appreciation of the ridiculous, she tries to make sense of it all. Connect with Niamh on X @NBMcnamara123

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