Do You Have Empathy Burnout? Here's What It Is and How to Deal With It

Are you always looking out for others? Do you constantly feel the need to put everyone else’s needs above your own? Would you identify yourself as a ‘people pleaser’? As a result of this, do you constantly feel physically and emotionally exhausted? If you answered yes, you may have ‘empathy burnout’. 

We spoke to Lysn psychologist Noosha Anzab to find out what this is, the symptoms to look out for and expert-approved ways to deal with this type of burnout.

What is empathy burnout?

Also known as ‘compassion fatigue’, the term is used to describe a person who is regularly expending their energy to care for others to the point that they, themselves, feel exhausted.

It can specifically affect those in helping roles, whether that be professionals or caregivers. “Interestingly enough, the core of empathy burnout not only sees the individual affected psychologically and physically, but it also sees their own empathy and compassion for others very much so attacked, leaving them exposed to the negative side effects associated with both prolonged stress and trauma,” Anzab tells Bed Threads Journal. 

But empathy burnout is more than just ‘exhaustion from caring for others’. 

“Whilst this is true, there is much more at stake here than just feeling exhausted,” Anzab continues. “To begin to understand empathy burnout, it’s important we gain good knowledge about what empathy is in the first place. If we speak to neuroscientists, they often suggest empathy is imagining or observing what another person is feeling to the point that it triggers a similar response in us. 

“More commonly, we know empathy as the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and this can definitely lead us to feel as though we’ve sacrificed ourselves for others without knowing it. This often results in individuals feeling overwhelmed, emotionally drained and lifeless.”

What are the symptoms of empathy burnout?

According to Anzab, research has proven an overlap of symptoms between empathy burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder. Common symptoms of empathy burnout include:

  • Anxiety
  • Sleeplessness
  • Reduced concentration
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal and avoidance
  • Headaches 
  • Poor job satisfaction

How do you deal with empathy burnout?

While it may feel as though empathy burnout is a space full of despair, there are simple yet highly effective methods to overcoming it. Here are four ways, according to Anzab. 

1. Engage in self-care 

“Engaging in self-care is a crucial part of everyone’s health in a plethora of ways. When we’re looking at empathy burnout specifically, it’s even more important to use self-care as a way of protecting compassion fatigue from kicking in. When we’re so devoted and absorbed in tending to other people’s needs, we often forget our own, so it’s super important to hit the brakes here.” 

Small acts of self-care can include a 15-minute walk, a meditation session, implementing a hygienic sleep routine devoid of any screens, a healthy diet filled with nutritious wholefoods, reading a book, spending time doing your favourite hobby, baking a cake or just some good old talk therapy.

2. Consider therapy

On that note, talking to a professional is one of the best ways to stay on top of your mental health. 

“It’s important to honour our emotional needs via therapy and getting into the therapeutic setting upon the onset of symptoms or simply when distress starts to kick in,” Anzab explains. “It could really help in preventing burnout, depression and anxiety from settling in deeply.”

3. Establish boundaries

“The best part of therapy is that it can help you establish and maintain boundaries - something that’s crucial for the prevention of empathy burnout.”

Surprisingly, it’s still possible to still be empathic whilst refraining from becoming overly involved and absorbing the other person’s pain. 

“Boundaries can help protect our time and our emotions. We can also learn to reinforce boundaries when we really need to, in order to prevent physical or emotional harm and help us let go of the overdeveloped sense of responsibility we may carry within ourselves.”

4. Create balance

“Even the establishment of balance outside of the empathic role is a boundary to maintain. Whilst being empathic and caring towards other people through compassion can be a great attribute, it’s extremely important our life outside of that is valued with the same regard,” Anzab notes. 

“Here, it’s worthwhile to commit to healthy relationships that are strong and healthy, which maintain and honour our boundaries in the first place. This helps meet work-life balance wherein we refer to the ‘work’ part of the equation as anything emotionally taxing, or as the caregiver-helper role we may play at some point of our lives.

"Not only does this help reduce stress, but it also helps facilitate self-care via hobbies, engagement and creativity. These are aspects of the self that really need to be nurtured in order to provide balance from being compassionately fatigued.” 

If you or someone you know needs help, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, call 000. If you are concerned about your health, wellbeing or sleep, you can also speak to your GP, who will advise a correct treatment plan.

Noosha Anzab is a clinical psychotherapist & psychologist at Lysn. Lysn is a digital mental health company with world class wellbeing technology which helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist whilst being able to access online tools to improve their mental health.

For more on this topic, here are the three main stages of burnout you need to know about.

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