The demands of being a first responder are exhausting, but these heroes willingly accept that reality. Unfortunately, sometimes this goes beyond typical stress and anxiety. Research has recently increased focus on first responder trauma, and we have even advanced our understanding of compassion fatigue. This is integral for caring for our heroes.

The Transformations Help for Our Heroes program focuses on helping veterans and first responders. Everyone knows that individuals in these professions encounter unique stressors, but few realize just how harmful this line of work can be. Trauma and first responder compassion fatigue are serious conditions, but you don’t have to fight on your own.

Contact Transformations at Mending Fences today to learn how we can help.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is an extreme mental state characterized by burnout and secondary trauma. It isn’t recognized as a full psychiatric disorder, but it can lead to similar symptoms and even diagnosable conditions. Physical and emotional exhaustion are prerequisites to this mental state. Unfortunately, the issue often stems from caring too much.

Compassion fatigue typically occurs when someone doesn’t have a healthy work-life balance. They overextend themselves because they feel they have a responsibility to others. The condition can minimize a person’s ability to empathize and feel compassion for others. This is the most tragic part since empathy and compassion typically lead to the issue.

A more serious form of the condition involves secondary trauma. This happens when a first responder starts to feel like they or their loved ones are experiencing the trauma of others. Those who live with the condition may also experience the anger of others or survivor’s guilt. These feelings can make it difficult for a person to comprehend the dangers they face.

The Issue of First Responder Trauma

When discussing compassion fatigue, it’s important to understand that it’s not typical first responder trauma. Responding to mass casualty events and other disasters can lead to primary trauma. Even if the danger has subsided, being part of its aftermath is a traumatic occurrence. This often results in first responders living with PTSD.

Compassion fatigue overlaps with post-traumatic stress disorder, but they are two distinct conditions. The latter is certainly a more serious diagnosis, but many outcomes can be similar. Unfortunately, the similarity in symptoms and outcomes means PTSD often goes undiagnosed by individuals who believe they’re experiencing first responder fatigue.

Those with compassion fatigue have trouble “turning off” even when they’re not on duty. This is a direct continuation of an unhealthy work-life balance. Flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts related to a traumatic experience are something altogether different. You may handle fatigue on your own, but PTSD requires professional help.

Contact Transformations at Mending Fences today if you’re having difficulty telling the difference.

What Are the Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue?

The warning signs of compassion fatigue differ based on the severity of the condition. If a first responder has only gotten to the point of burnout, their symptoms are less severe than those experienced by victims of secondary trauma. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean their mental state isn’t serious. This type of first responder fatigue can lead to many mental health issues.

Keep an eye out for the following signs of compassion fatigue:

  • Depression
  • Frustration
  • Feelings of uselessness
  • Cynicism
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Worries you’re failing at your job
  • Constantly feeling exhausted or tired
  • Feeling the need to drink alcohol or do drugs

These certainly sound like symptoms of EMS PTSD, but experiencing a traumatic event is not necessary. Compassion fatigue can affect individuals even if their day-to-day operations don’t involve major disasters or trauma. This is what makes the condition so daunting for those dealing with it. With the right help, though, it’s possible to overcome these feelings.

While compassion fatigue is certainly serious, secondary trauma presents larger issues. The two terms sometimes get used interchangeably, but the differences in symptoms are immediately apparent. If you or a loved one are experiencing the following problems, secondary first responder trauma may have developed:

  • Fear in non-threatening situations
  • Physical symptoms include headaches, shortness of breath, and racing heart
  • Feeling others’ trauma as if you experienced it yourself
  • Constantly feeling on guard or jumpy
  • Excessive fear that yourself, your colleagues, or loved ones may get hurt
  • Persistent intrusive thoughts involving the trauma of others

Unfortunately, first responders excel at internalizing their daily stress. This means those around them — or even the first responder themselves — may not recognize the severity of the issue they’re going through. Still, others may not think they need help because they have symptoms of compassion fatigue but not secondary trauma.

This belief can prove harmful. Secondary trauma is the eventual outcome of this form of first responder fatigue. If you ignore signs that you have a problem, it will only get worse in time. Left untreated, this can lead to vicarious trauma that potentially changes the way you view the entire world. This would make overcoming your issues even more difficult.

Tips and Treatment for First Responder Trauma

Compassion fatigue symptoms often subside within two weeks. If they don’t — or symptoms become serious issues — it’s important to seek professional treatment. In many cases, though, you can take active steps for improvement. The following tips work best when used as a preventative measure, but they can also help you get your head back in a good space.

  • Build your resilience with good nutrition, active relaxation (e.g., meditation), adequate sleep, and regular physical activity.
  • Even when you can’t get enough sleep, resting when you have the chance can help.
  • Stay hydrated and eat the best quality foods you can find.
  • Don’t let your hygiene suffer. Even a clean change of clothes can work wonders.
  • Wash — even a face and hands wash can help when you don’t have time.
  • Be willing to take time away from work. This will remind you there’s good in the world.
  • Mourn losses and celebrate successes with your colleagues.
  • Practice faith if you believe in a higher power.
  • Don’t isolate yourself from family and friends.
  • Talk to your colleagues. Get to know them.
  • Identify and focus on things you have to look forward to.

If these methods for combating compassion fatigue don’t work, the outcome could negatively affect other parts of your life. Strained relationships, turning to substance abuse, financial difficulties, unexplained somatic symptoms, apathy, and increased isolation are just some of the problems this condition can create in your life.

Don’t wait until these worsen or turn into something more serious. Compassion fatigue can lead to major issues, so don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

Seek Help for Compassion Fatigue Today

Many first responders choose to push forward even when dealing with difficulties. The urge to do this is understandable, considering the pressure put on those in the profession. Unfortunately, “just dealing” with your issues can seriously affect your ability to do your job. Even worse, failure to seek treatment can interfere with your chance to live a normal life.

If you develop compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, or similar conditions, now is the time to reach out for assistance. First responders and veterans lead up the Help for Our Heroes program at Transformations, so you’ll work with professionals who understand your unique needs. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to “tough it out.”

Contact us today to start taking your life back.


National Alliance on Mental Illness

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Psychiatric Times

Centers for Disease Control