Empathy is a quality that is necessary in health professionals , especially psychologists, but it can become a double-edged sword.

This quality is defined as the ability of a person to “put themselves in the shoes” of another, to understand them better and give them the most appropriate advice for their situation. It is important for psychologists to have empathy; however, since it is a double-edged sword, over-applying it has repercussions for the intervenor. In this article we will talk about one of these consequences, called empathy attrition syndrome , as well as its effects.

What is empathy wear?

In recent years there has been increasing use of the term burnout to refer to a person already “burned out” by so much work and stress. It is a physical, mental and emotional exhaustion . It means that it is time to take a break and relax. This syndrome applies to anyone who has a job or is a student, since they have a daily workload and are under stress.

Something similar happens in the health professions, especially with those professionals who are in constant contact with patients who are or have had highly stressful experiences. It is known as empathy attrition syndrome or compassion fatigue, a term proposed by psychologist Charles Figley within Psychotraumatology . It is a consequence of the emotional residue of dealing with people who have or are going through situations of trauma.


The symptoms of this syndrome are divided into 3 groups.

1. Re-experimentation

An unresolved traumatic experience may arise in association with the patient’s conflict. Rumination of thought about an event and flashbacks appear .

2. Avoidance and emotional numbness

Stress can build up session after session if you do not have the required emotional intelligence or the patient situations you have to deal with are too strong, this can cause emotional saturation, irritability, and frustration. Avoidance of certain places, situations or people that remind you of the traumatic event. May lead to isolation or neglect of interpersonal relationships.

In the case of psychologists in charge of providing psychological first aid, it is because of the high exposure to risk factors during their work.

3. Hyperactivation or hyperarousal

Feeling of constant fatigue, anxiety, guilt or shame . Sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, panic and extreme excitement over small stimuli may also occur.

Recommendations for managing this emotional crisis

The syndrome can appear progressively or it can be sudden, like a bomb that just depends on time to go off. Therefore, it is important to learn to recognize the signs and symptoms in order to know when to make the decision to take a break and implement self-care guidelines . It is extremely important, when giving therapy or dealing with patients, that the participants have good mental health.

Some recommendations for the self-care of the participants are

  • Psychoeducational training for the development of resilience and tools for dealing with the added stress of being exposed to risk factors.
  • Have relaxation or meditation techniques.
  • Perform leisure activities completely disconnected from work.
  • Know how to ask for support as soon as you notice unusual symptoms.
  • Know the situations that are triggers for high levels of stress and that lead to vulnerability.
  • Do not overload yourself with work or with cases you know you cannot handle effectively.

As health professionals it is essential to recognize and accept that psychological support and a break from daily activities is also needed from time to time. The problem is that many times you have a “double agenda”, you can easily identify abnormal symptoms in any patient but this is not the case when it comes to yourself. This is why we must promote self-knowledge and the implementation of preventive self-care measures.