Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

How Family and Loved Ones Can Protect Against Compassion Fatigue

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The term “compassion fatigue” has traditionally been used to describe a common experience for first responders, medical providers, and those in the helping professions. Sometimes known as secondary trauma, it occurs when those who are routinely exposed to others’ trauma begin to experience some of the same symptoms.

However, compassion fatigue doesn’t just impact frontline workers. It can also take a damaging toll on the friends and loved ones of a person struggling with trauma, anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorder, or another serious mental health condition. There are few life challenges that compare to watching a close friend or family member battle mental illness or addiction.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

When a young person suffers from mental illness or addiction, their entire family unit and social circle can be affected. And if they are chronically destabilized, their friends and loved ones are forced to witness their suffering firsthand, often over long periods of time. In addition, loved ones are often the ones who shoulder the primary support role.

Know the Facts

The impact of mental illness on family members includes physical health problems, psychological difficulties, and socioeconomic issues.

Without healthy boundaries in place, friends and family members can get caught in a turbulent emotional cycle that revolves around reacting to their loved one’s crises. In short, the trauma is compounded; when the young person begins to spiral, their loved ones go along for the ride.

Over time, this cycle can lead to pervasive feelings of frustration, exhaustion, and hopelessness that are the hallmark signs of compassion fatigue. Loved ones may be afraid of enabling unhealthy choices, while also terrified that cutting off support could make things even worse. Instead of being grounded in their own emotional reality, compassion fatigue causes them to exist in a state of reactivity and hypervigilance, not unlike what’s experienced by those who live with symptoms of PTSD.

Compassion Fatigue Symptoms

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a loved one’s mental health struggles wouldn’t impact the people closest to them. Research shows that mental illness in a family member creates a significant multidimensional impact across generations. Even when the person is actively seeking treatment and committed to recovery, there will always be bumps on the road that will have a ripple effect on the people they care about. That said, having an emotional response to the suffering of others does not have to result in compassion fatigue.

Here are common signs and symptoms that may indicate that support for compassion fatigue is needed:

  • Abusing drugs, alcohol, or other substances
  • Anger
  • Blaming
  • Chronic lateness to work or school
  • Depression
  • A diminished sense of personal accomplishment
  • Exhaustion (physical or emotional)
  • Frequent headaches
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Unrealistic expectations for oneself
  • Hopelessness
  • Hypertension
  • Inability to balance empathy with objectivity
  • Increased irritability
  • Less ability to feel joy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Avoidance

How to Help Compassion Fatigue

If you’ve developed symptoms of compassion fatigue as you’ve worked to support your loved one, know that you are not alone. Sometimes, it’s hard to separate the person from their actions or their symptoms. But you can continue to love that individual wholeheartedly without losing yourself amidst the chaos of their condition. Here are some tips to help you set healthy boundaries for yourself.

  • The first step is identifying the cues that might trigger you to respond to your loved one in a way that is harmful to yourself. Even if you’ve been in the habit of responding to unhealthy behaviors in an unhealthy way, know that this is a pattern you have the power to break.
  • Build consistency in the way you respond to your loved one. Create a clear list of things you will and will not do to support that person and communicate those boundaries. You can expect some resistance from your loved one, especially in the beginning, but it will get easier over time.
  • Carve out time to engage in self-care activities that rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit. Monitor your eating and sleeping habits, practice mindfulness, engage in intentional movement, and recommit to a hobby you used to enjoy.
  • Seek your own mental healthcare. Individual and/or group therapy provides a place to express yourself confidentially, process your experience, and practice new healthy coping tools with a trusted professional.

At Newport Institute, we believe that involving loved ones in the treatment process is critical for lasting healing to occur, and our programming is designed to reflect the impact that compassion fatigue can have on those closest to our patients. Our multidisciplinary team is here to support you in taking good care of yourself so that you will be more equipped to support your loved one on the path to recovery. 


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Mental Health / October 14, 2020