Combating Compassion Fatigue With Mindfulness & Meditation

It may be one of the most common causes of fatigue and ‘feeling tired’ in today’s modern world. Explore signs and causes of compassion fatigue as well as helpful ways to combat compassion stress and feelings of callousness.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
compassion fatigue definition
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

If you’re like most people, the endless stream of news from environmental degradation to humanitarian crises can leave you feeling helpless and exhausted. Instead of feeling inspired to rally for a cause, you might feel like hiding from the world. This is compassion fatigue. Thankfully, there are solutions to reinvigorate you and help you feel empowered again.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue may be one of the most common causes of fatigue and ‘feeling tired’ in today’s modern world. Psychologist Charles Figley explains compassion fatigue as

“[A] state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.”

This stress can be anything from watching a video of a turtle caught in a plastic fishing net to a starving child in East Africa or a news bulletin about rampant sexual harassment in senior government.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Behavioural changes such as becoming easily startled or struggling to remain objective
  • Physical changes such as anxiety and exhaustion
  • Emotional changes such as depression and a feeling of helplessness

Compassion fatigue has worsened over the past few years since social media has taken up permanent residency in most people’s lives. With constant access, push notifications and reminders of wars, traumas, climate emergencies, harassment and violence, more and more people are conjuring less emotion when confronted with startling and shocking images and news. When we shy away from these images, we’re left feeling exhausted and hopeless. This feeling of hopelessness can filter into other aspects of our lives, leading to burnout.

As a collective group, compassion fatigue can change the emotional capacity of our society. Instead of relating to other people on a deeper emotional level, compassion fatigue depletes us of our ability to feel, whether it’s outrage, empowerment or sadness. Essentially, it leaves us flat and exhausted.

Read more: Feeling mentally fuzzy and grouchy can be discouraging. There are many factors that can cause it. Discover how to get rid of brain fog with simple steps to clear our minds and feel better.

Compassion Fatigue Can Lead To Burnout

Burnout is today’s modern form of extreme fatigue and can be triggered by feelings of overwhelm and compassion fatigue. A burnt-out person will feel unmotivated and exhausted and be almost unable to get out of bed. Severe burnout can lead to mental health issues and has a profound effect on your health and wellbeing both at work and at home. Unfortunately, it’s the workplace that is most commonly blamed for causing severe burnout caused by compassion fatigue.

Compassion Fatigue & Burnout Are More Common In Certain Jobs

Compassion is especially important in certain vocations, such as healthcare. For nurses, doctors, physical therapists and carers, being able to showcase compassion and empathy in the face of trauma and pain are vital to offering great patient-care and creating meaningful relationships with patients. However, healthcare is also one of the leading vocations where compassion fatigue is rife due to regular exposure to traumatic stressors, long work hours, demanding workloads and short staffing. 

In 1992, Carla Joinson first used the term ‘compassion fatigue’ after noticing nurses coping with heartache had lost their ability to nurture patients. Since then, healthcare professionals in palliative care, emergency and critical care settings have been observed to be at higher risk of compassion fatigue. In fact, nursing reports such high levels of this condition, it is one of the reasons nurses disengage, exhibit noticeable changes in practice, and even choose to leave the profession.

While compassion fatigue is linked to emotions and burnout is linked to job stress, often the two occur together. As many healthcare roles revolve around empathy, evaluating burnout and compassion fatigue in these populations gives us valuable insights into overcoming this modern ailment.

Read more: Explore strategies to de-stress at work that focus on the structural causes of workplace stress.

Meditation To Overcome Emotional Fatigue And Burnout

One study evaluated the effect of meditation on burnt-out and emotionally fatigued health professionals at a hospital. Twenty-seven residents, eight faculty physicians and 12 nurses participated in the study. 35 people completed a 12-week ‘Heartfulness Meditation’ course, and 12 people were control subjects. The results were compelling:

  • At 12 weeks, the meditators had statistically significant improvement in all measures of burnout and nearly all attributes of emotional wellness (EWA).
  • Controls showed no statistically significant changes in either burnout or emotional wellness scores.
  • Relative telomere length increased with statistical significance in a younger subset of meditators.

It’s startling to note these effects were observed in just twelve weeks of the health professionals undertaking a meditation program. The speed at which the program became effective is motivating. 

While this program was in a healthcare setting, it can be extrapolated to include every vocation. Whether you work in marketing, social work or government, you’re bound to teeter on the edge of burnout and compassion fatigue at some point.

We have handpicked popular guided meditations by Insight Timer meditation teachers that help to reconnect with compassion and deal with feelings of overwhelm:

  1. A Practice To De Stress When "I'm Overwhelmed By The News" Lisa Jakub 12:41
  2. Returning To Peace And Compassion Michael Mackintosh 24:04
  3. Fostering A Compassionate Mind Lama Yeshe Rabgye 13:31
  4. Connect To Mother Earth Melanie O'Driscoll 16:54
  5. World Drama Ariel Hardy 14:21

Discover hundreds of guided compassion meditation practices to foster feelings of kindness and compassion towards others.

Strategies For Combating Compassion Fatigue

Certain meditation practices, such as mindfulness, can help overcome compassion fatigue by re-shifting focus which combats rumination over stressful events. Mindfulness meditation practices also alleviate stress due to slow breathing and activating the parasympathetic nervous system and, therefore, the relaxation response.

Besides incorporating meditation into your daily life to combat compassion fatigue though, try these solutions too:

1. Turn off push notifications from news sites and unfollow fear-mongering social accounts

Remember, you control your phone and devices, not the other way around. Take back control and choose what you see, and when you see it.

Push notifications take away your control, as news headlines and stressful tweets pop up on your phone even when you’re not actively using it. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, and think you may be struggling with compassion fatigue, disable push notifications. After a few days, you’ll feel the relief of accessing news and social media only when you choose to. 

Scrolling through social media can be empowering when you follow great accounts, but it can also create plenty of bad emotions too, from jealousy to emotional fatigue. If you enjoy using Instagram for example, look through your feed and see how each account makes you feel. If it doesn’t enhance your wellbeing or even make you think in a positive light, unfollow the account. Transforming what you include in your feed can have a huge effect on your mental health and levels of compassion fatigue.

Read more: “Avoid content you know will trigger negative reactions” is only one advice for conscious digital device usage. Explore principles and tips to raise consciousness in the digital age. Also, discover the phenomenon of phone-induced anxiety and how to overcome it.

2. Find peace in activities that don’t involve your device

Having constant access to devices can make you feel like you’re always ‘on.’ Instead, when you’re feeling tired after work or overwhelmed, try going tech-free.

Go for a walk surrounded by nature, jump in the lake, do ten deep breaths, draw, paint or cook. Doing an activity without tech can help prevent rumination over stressful events and ideas, essentially ‘clearing your head.’

3. Find someone to talk to about how you’re feeling

Countless studies have found compassion fatigue is relieved in health professionals when they have a support network and people to talk to. In fact, some hospitals and organizations have introduced Schwartz rounds, “a structured forum where all staff, clinical and non-clinical, come together regularly to discuss the emotional and social aspects of working in healthcare.” This program has been adopted around the world to help health professionals feel supported and heard, allowing them to avoid compassion fatigue at work and home.

Regardless of your profession, finding someone to talk to who understands how you feel when you’re overwhelmed by media messaging can help. Whether it’s a friend, colleague, family member or even a paid counselor, you may be surprised how many people share your feelings.

Regain Your Motivation & Power

Mindfulness and meditation have been proven to have profound effects on compassion fatigue, as do other strategies like managing your digital exposure and developing social supports. Whether you work in a job requiring huge levels of human compassion, or you feel compassion fatigue in everyday life, there are strategies you can try.

Instead of feeling suffocated and overwhelmed when you read a news flash, limit your exposure to social media and news, so when you do see a flash, you feel motivated and empowered to act.

Meditation. Free.