Taking care of your own emotional needs is important when helping others with theirs.

How to Cope With Compassion Fatigue When Counseling Trauma Victims

A traumatic event doesn’t touch only its immediate victims—it can expand outward and impact care workers, too. Those who help others with the aftereffects of trauma can themselves experience emotional issues, such as compassion fatigue. Social workers in particular are at risk for compassion fatigue due to the profession’s demands on their empathy.* Knowing how to prevent compassion fatigue can be the key to having long and successful careers in social work. Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can better care for yourself, ensuring you remain strong enough to care for others.

What is compassion fatigue?

The American Institute of Stress defines compassion fatigue as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.” Importantly, compassion fatigue is not burnout. Compassion fatigue tends to come on quickly while burnout appears over time. Additionally, compassion fatigue can be easier to treat if you recognize the symptoms early.

How do I know if I have compassion fatigue?

The symptoms of compassion fatigue can be wide and varied. However, all sufferers of compassion fatigue experience negative emotions and heightened levels of stress. The American Academy of Family Physicians offers a self-assessment test‡ that includes the following signs:

  • Personal concerns are intruding on your professional life.
  • Colleagues don’t seem to understand what you’re feeling.
  • Small changes feel enormously draining.
  • Association with trauma and other people’s stress affects you deeply and you can’t recover quickly.
  • You’ve lost your sense of hopefulness.
  • You feel vulnerable all the time.
  • You feel overwhelmed by unfinished personal business.

Compassion fatigue can include a few or all of these symptoms along with generalized depression, sleep disturbances, and anger issues. However, these symptoms can be treated or even avoided by taking steps to care for yourself.

How can I overcome compassion fatigue?

To prevent or treat compassion fatigue, you must engage in self-care. While counseling or helping trauma victims may seem much more important than helping yourself, you can’t do your job effectively if you are experiencing your own emotional crisis. To help prevent or treat compassion fatigue, you can take the following steps:

  • Talk to someone, either a professional or a friend, about what you’re feeling.
  • Exercise regularly and eat well.
  • Engage in meaningful conversations every day.
  • Get more sleep.
  • Take time off.
  • Focus on interests outside of your profession.
  • Maintain a personal life, even when you don’t feel like it.
  • Recognize that what you feel is normal and not your fault.

How can I learn to better help trauma victims?

If you’re interested in social work that focuses on counseling victims of trauma, consider enrolling in an online Bachelor of Science (BSW) or Master of Social Work (MSW) program with Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accreditation. While some entry-level social work jobs require a bachelor’s degree such as a BSW, many of the profession’s advanced positions require you to have earned your MSW. Earning your a degree online can make the process easier, since an online university is structured to allow you to advance your education without uprooting your life. Plus, earning your bachelor’s or master’s in social work online can help you graduate faster and thus save money. If you specialize in crisis and trauma, you can learn how to help others cope with trauma in ways that allow you to take care of yourself and avoid compassion fatigue.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online BSW program and an online MSW program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


*Kate Jackson, Social Worker Self-Care—The Overlooked Core Competency, Social Work Today, on the Internet at www.socialworktoday.com/archive/051214p14.shtml.

†The American Institute of Stress, Compassion Fatigue, on the Internet at www.stress.org/military/for-practitionersleaders/compassion-fatigue.

‡John-Henry Pfifferling and Kay Gilley, Overcoming Compassion Fatigue, Family Practice Management, on the Internet at www.aafp.org/fpm/2000/0400/p39.html.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org.

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