Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask Before Assisting Others

Written by: Rachel Eifert, MS, LPC, CSAC, CS-IT

The compassion and empathy shown by healthcare, law enforcement and community service professionals can prove to be physically, mentally and economically costly. The term Compassion Fatigue was first coined by Dr. Charles Figley (1995), director of Traumatology Institute at Tulane University and is defined as an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of others to the degree that secondary traumatic stress develops in the individual providing aid.  This exposure to patients or clients experiencing trauma or distress can negatively impact a professional’s mental and physical health, safety and well-being, as well as that of their families, the people they care for, and their employing organizations.

In addition to professionals, family members who care for ill children or adult family members are also at risk for experiencing compassion fatigue. It is difficult to “always be on” one patient shared about her experiences being a 24/7 caregiver for her mother who has dementia.  Changing the belief that it is more important to care for others before yourself is a great place to start, taking care of yourself will make you a better and more effective helper.

In many cases, the first symptoms of Compassion Fatigue are emotional. People who normally loved helping others find themselves feeling bored, uninterested, irritable and detached from their colleagues as well as those clients or patients they care for. They may perform less than their best at work because they believe their efforts make no difference. They may have difficulties sleeping or sometimes even going to work. Physical symptoms include feeling exhausted and fatigued, anxiety, having headaches or back aches, recurrent colds or even gastrointestinal problems.

If you or someone you know is at risk for compassion fatigue here are a few tips to improve self care and reduce maladaptive patterns of coping:


  • Do something to relieve stress (exercise, play sports or games, visit with friends or with a pet)
  • -Spend plenty of quiet time alone in meditation practice
  • -Hold one focused, connected and meaningful conversation each day
  • -Practice mindfulness in the moments you have at work (take slow deep breaths, think of a loved one, go to a safe peaceful place in your mind (pleasant imagery)
  • -Keep work at work, do not take it home with you
  • -Seek professional support and guidance
  • -Journal daily reflections and gratitude


  • -Work more
  • -Isolate
  • -Blame others or ignore symptoms
  • -Use drugs or alcohol to cope
  • -Bottle up emotions
  • -Increase spending or engage in other compulsive behaviors
  • -Don’t spend your energy complaining

It is important to know that even in the most challenging circumstances, caregivers and helpers can learn realistic ways to cope so they can keep going and do what is most important to them, helping and enriching the lives of others. After all, what good are we to others when we become depleted of oxygen and pass out? Vow to put your oxygen mask on first…..


References used:

Figley CR. Compassion fatigue as secondary traumatic stress disorder: an overview. In: Figley CR, editor. Compassion fatigue. Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge; 1995. pp. 1–20

Gallagher R. Compassion fatigue. Can Fam Physician. 2013;59(3):265-8.

Tedeschi R, Calhoun L, editors. Trauma and transformation. Growing in the aftermath of suffering. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; 1995. pp. 43–57.