Compassion Fatigue and the Science of Empathy

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To many of us, caring comes naturally and we’d do it no matter how difficult it becomes. But caregiving can be an extremely taxing role physically, financially, mentally, and emotionally. Colin investigated research that’s been conducted on the origins and motivations of empathy and the possible repercussions that arise from caregiving. –Amanda

Compassion Fatigue and the Science of Empathy

by Colin DeMatteis


Something strange happens to us when we sit down to watch a dramatic movie or read a well-written novel. If the actors are skilled enough or the author knows their craft, we naturally place ourselves with the characters and feel for them. To use the old phrase, we place ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

Imagine a detached mind – perhaps a scientist – observing us as we empathize. How odd that we not only imagine ourselves in another situation, but we do so subconsciously.

A recently developed field, the neuroscience of empathy, has been studying our empathic reactions for some time. Some, like Dr. Jean Decety of the University of Chicago, are uncovering evidence that human beings are hard wired to feel empathy.  As quoted in a 2006 article from the University of Chicago Magazine, “a baby who listens to another baby cry will begin to cry too.”

Decety carried out a series of experiments to measure how our brains react to seeing others in distress. From Chicago Magazine: “Studies show an overlap in the neural regions that process personal pain and the pain of others. ‘But … it is not a complete overlap. The person [in the fMRI] is not actually in pain.’ The brain knows the difference, ‘and that is important.’”

When we see another person in pain, we have much of the same reaction as if we are in pain ourselves. Many of us experience empathy on a limited basis: we feel it everyday, but it does not overwhelm us.

But consider those who make a career out of empathy: doctors, firefighters, social workers, hospice nurses, caregivers, even veterinarians. Working with people in pain or distress makes us (literally) feel for them. Day after day, handling these powerful emotions can wear us out and sometimes give us the same conditions we are treating.

This is compassion fatigue: also called Caregiver Burnout or Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder. Its symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, stress, inability to focus, and depression. Anyone can develop compassion fatigue; the only prerequisite is that they have a functioning sense of empathy.

Compassion fatigue is our natural ability to empathize run amok. In the case of social workers or family caregivers, it can actually be a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While 7.8 percent of the population experiences PTSD in their lifetime, a 2007 Study found 15 percent of Social Workers surveyed met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Working with people suffering from PTSD or other conditions doubles their chance of developing similar symptoms and compassion fatigue.

We can even go so far as to take blame for events in which we did not participate. As documented in Eula Biss’s Essay All Apologies (Audio) Ed Daily, who gave his false report of the No Gun Ri Massacre during the Korean War, was not actually at the village, but heard about it second hand.

As we at WEGO Health have been discussing this month, when we care and advocate for others, we need to remember to care for ourselves. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project has some excellent resources to learn more and find help, and for spousal caregivers there is the aforementioned Well Spouse Association.

The CFAP has a list of actions to keep in mind while caring for another, but the first point is probably the most important: Be kind to yourself.

To learn more, check out this group of links from Trauma Central for some very informative articles.

Do you think that being a compassionate Health Activist – leading your community despite their pain, listening to your online friends’ pain and hardship, and having your empathy light on – can wear on your well-being?


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