Understanding Compassion Fatigue, Vicarious Trauma and Burnout

If you want to make a difference in the lives of others, you might feel compelled to pursue a career in psychology, criminal justice or human services.

As rewarding as these professions may be, they can also take an emotional toll. Seeing people at their worst can sometimes prevent you from feeling your best.

As you seek to help others, you might run into one or the following issues: compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma or burnout. The three experiences are closely related, but each one has different causes and manifests itself in different ways. As a student or caregiver, it’s very important to be aware of the signs so that you can take steps to address the situation before your quality of life and ability to function deteriorates.

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue can be described as a numbness that comes from constantly helping other people and feeling powerless to help. It can affect your emotional well-being, and sometimes even have physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping.

Charles Figley, director of Tulane University’s Traumatology Institute, provides this definition: “Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma can happen if you work closely with people who have experienced traumatic events, such as victims of abuse or violence. You may feel as if the trauma had actually happened to you. In a sense, the other people’s experiences rub off on you, causing you to experience the same feelings.

The American Counseling Association defines vicarious trauma as “… the emotional residue of exposure that counselors have from working with people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.”


Burnout is more than a slump at work or a desire to take a vacation. It’s a condition that affects the well-being and productivity of workers, caused primarily from being emotionally and physically exhausted. Herbert Freudenberger, who coined the term in 1974, said burnout is a function of increased work stress, and can have mental and physical effects. This may include being dissatisfied and apathetic, especially at work.

Some Common Signs

As a counselor, you might be dealing with confidential situations. This could mean that you feel isolated, as you can’t share details with others.

People suffering from compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma or burnout may display some of the following symptoms:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of sleep
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal from enjoyable activities
  • Dread
  • Interpersonal problems
  • Weight gain or loss

What Can You Do?

The best cure for compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma or burnout is to take good care of yourself. Have a daily routine, get a full night’s sleep, socialize with friends and family, and make time for the activities you enjoy.

If you feel it’s necessary, seek professional help. In addition, don’t be afraid to lean on close friends who can provide you with balance and perspective.

Get program guide
YES! Please send me a FREE brochure with course info, pricing and more!