Compassion Fatigue (CF) is a term used to describe the potential emotional, physical, spiritual exhaustion that helping professionals can experience through repeated exposure to the emotional pain of clients.
CF can impact a helper’s personal and/or professional lives with symptoms such as emotional distancing or numbness, difficulty concentrating, intrusive imagery, loss of hope, exhaustion and irritability (Figley, 1995).
Compassion fatigue has been called “the cost of caring” (Figley, 1995), as it can affect professionals in any field who come into contact with people affected by emotional pain or trauma. Counsellors experiencing CF may begin to notice they are not emotionally available to themselves or the important people in their lives. Some counsellors continue to work effectively but feel unable to give of themselves in their personal lives.
The terms Secondary Traumatic Stress and Vicarious Trauma (McCann and Pearlman, 1990; Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995) are also used to describe potential negative effects on helpers as a result of their close emotional contact with other people’s pain.
Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is a condition similar in symptoms to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but is the result of exposure to another person’s traumatic material rather that direct personal exposure to trauma (Figley, 2003).
Vicarious Trauma is defined as the transformation of the inner experiences of the therapist that comes about as a result of empathic engagement with client’s trauma material. It is a process, an expected result of long term involvement with other people’s trauma (McCann and Pearlman, 1990).
Through awareness and a system of self-care, professionals can improve their own resiliency, and maintain wellness through the inevitable stressors of working with people.