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The Impact Compassion Fatigue Can Play

When Compassion Fatigue Leads to Anxiety, and What You Can Do About It

Compassion fatigue is common in helping professions, but it can affect anybody. When compassion fatigue isn’t managed, it can lead to more severe issues, such as anxiety and depression. Here, we explore the relationship between compassion fatigue and anxiety; how managing compassion fatigue can benefit your mental health; steps for prevention and healing; and how to manage stress and anxiety in the workplace — a common environment for compassion fatigue.

Compassion Fatigue and Anxiety

Compassion fatigue is sometimes referred to as secondary or vicarious trauma and results from physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. The risk for workers in helping fields — such as nurses, emergency medical personnel, or those with a degree in social work — is that compassion fatigue could prevent them from effectively performing their tasks, and they might avoid situations where they are needed most.

However, “A Guide to Understanding and Coping with Compassion Fatigue” highlights the fact that although compassion fatigue is often associated with caregivers frequently exposed to the pain and suffering of their clients, it can affect individuals in any occupation. Beyond work, social dynamics such as the 24-hour news cycle of often negative information and always-on smartphones mean that no one is immune from the potential for compassion fatigue.

When compassion fatigue isn’t addressed adequately, it can lead to more severe conditions, including mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. In an article for Psychology Today, Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., describes dynamics similar to compassion fatigue in the context of “burnout” and says that anxiety is one serious issue that may result.

Noting that chronic anxiety is common with burnout, Carter says it may progress from “nagging feelings of tension, worry, and edginess, which may interfere with your ability to attend and concentrate,” to more severe anxiety that “interferes in your ability to go to work or take care of your responsibilities at home.” Feelings of “apprehension and dread” are common, Carter says, with anxiety sometimes severe enough to result in panic attacks.

How Managing Compassion Fatigue Can Benefit Mental Health

Managing compassion fatigue provides essential mental health benefits — especially in terms of preventing and reducing the impact of conditions like anxiety and depression. Research on the effects of compassion fatigue among health care and community service workers describes the crossroad of compassion fatigue and burnout: “An often extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the emotional pain of those being helped can create a secondary traumatic stress (STS) for the caregiver, and, when converged with cumulative burnout (BO), a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by a depleted ability to cope with one’s everyday environment, CF [compassion fatigue] results.”

However, the same researchers found that evidence-based interventions applied in the workplace can “reduce compassion fatigue and more serious, chronic and economically costly mental disorders, to the benefit of individual workers, employers and the broader society and economy through the retention of healthy, productive workers who serve those in need of health care and social assistance.”

Prevention and Healing

One of the first steps to prevent and address compassion fatigue is knowing how to recognize the condition. In an article for Family Practice Management, the authors list warning signs of compassion fatigue.

When it comes to preventing compassion fatigue or addressing it after it occurs, self-care is critical. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a list of strategies disaster workers can use to avoid compassion fatigue, which can also be used by others in helping professions. SAMHSA says it’s important to use them regularly, instead of waiting until the need is apparent. They include:

  • Focus on the four core components of resilience: adequate sleep, proper nutrition, regular physical activity, and active relaxation.
  • Practice good hygiene.
  • Wash up after your work shift as a symbolic “washing away.”
  • Learn about your colleagues at work so that you can establish connections.
  • Celebrate successes and mourn sorrows with coworkers.
  • Allow yourself some time to be alone to think.
  • Practice your spiritual beliefs or reach out to a faith leader for support.
  • Take time away from work to experience other things.
  • Find things to look forward to.
  • Communicate with friends and family.
  • Create special ceremonies or rituals that allow you to focus your thoughts on letting go of stress or honoring the memory of something positive.

Managing Stress and Anxiety in the Workplace

The workplace is one of the most common environments in which compassion fatigue occurs since job stress and anxiety can be contributing factors. To cope with stress at work, the American Psychological Association recommends that you:

  • Track your stressors by using a journal for a week or two to identify situations that cause the most stress, and the dynamics involved.
  • Develop healthy responses, such as making nutritious food choices, exercising, engaging in favorite activities, and getting quality sleep.
  • Establish boundaries, instead of making yourself available 24 hours a day to attend to work-related responsibilities.
  • Take time to recharge by “switching off” from work for designated periods.
  • Learn how to relax, making use of techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness exercises.
  • Talk to your supervisor about how you can work together to manage the stressors better you identify, to improve your work performance. 
  • Get some support from trusted friends, family members, work resources, and mental health professionals, if needed.

Sam Keller is a contributing writer to, find her on Twitter at @_SamKeller.


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