South Asians and Compassion Fatigue

compassion fatigue

Many South Asian women have experienced compassion fatigue. Because of common societal expectations, South Asian women often have to hold space for their partners, parents, and communities–often leading to feeling drained, overburdened, and/or depressed. And though it may be falsely framed as a labor of love, South Asian women become preoccupied with suffering silently due to the falsifications that limit their ability to reach out for support.

Compassion is a beautiful gift from the deepest part of your soul. “It is the experience of deep empathy for a person suffering coupled with a desire to resolve their misfortune or remedy their pain” (Figley, 2002b; Stamm, 2002)Although compassion can be deeply rewarding and fulfilling, it comes with a cost, particularly if you are frequently exposed to others’ traumatic experiences or the expectation of always being readily available to “do your duty.” South Asian women, in particular, are often expected to carry the majority of the domestic and caregiving needs of the immediate and extended family–while simultaneously silencing and tucking away their emotional and mental health needs.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a form of stress, burnout, and/or tension that arises from frequent and consistent contact with people experiencing trauma, where you may become preoccupied with the suffering or pain of others (Hunsaker, Chen, Maughan, & Heaston, 2015). South Asian women in domestic and caregiving roles, the trauma and suffering of others become front and center. More often, you may not recognize compassion fatigue as it comes from wanting to keep helping and feeling overwhelmed by repetitive exposure to other people’s trauma and suffering. Unlike other mental health conditions, compassion fatigue develops slowly over time and can be easily recognized by self and others, primarily if it is rooted in a role expectation.

Compassion fatigue can look like thinking about the other person’s sufferings or needs when you are laying down to go to sleep, cooking a meal, or simply feeling stressed. Not knowing how to solve their problem to the point where it consumes your peace. It can cause you to slowly stop caring about yourself and others in your life due to the over-exertion of your compassion skills.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:

Compassion fatigue can show itself in a range of symptoms and behaviors—known as 22-symptom fatigue—because, just like its experience, even the symptoms can feel exhaustive (Cocker & Joss, 2016; Clay, 2020; Stamm, 2010). Some symptoms include:

  • A sense of being detached or having decreased interest in caring for others
  • Preoccupation with people you help
  • Mental, psychological, and physical exhaustion
  • Anger and irritability
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Intrusive thoughts and experiencing ruminating about the suffering of others
  • Sleep problems
  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling helpless, hopeless, and powerless about helping work
  • Flashbacks
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Avoidance of certain activities, situations, or people you help
  • Feeling like a failure as a helper and blaming yourself for not having done enough to help the suffering people.
  • Drops in productivity
  • Emotional numbness and sadness
  • Trouble separating personal and professional life
  • A decreased capacity to experience sympathy and empathy
  • Dysfunctional coping behaviors, e.g., misusing alcohol or drugs.
  • Taking more time off work
  • Reduced decision-making ability
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Decreased satisfaction or enjoyment with work

Steps to Healing: Learning How to Put Your Needs at the Forefront

The sooner you can identify the signs of compassion fatigue, the sooner you can begin to care for yourself and heal the wounds in your soul. If compassion fatigue goes unacknowledged and untreated, it can lead to other mental health conditions like clinical anxiety, depression, substance use disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Self-care may seem an obvious way to treat compassion fatigue; however, many people find it hard to prioritize when caring for others. Research within the helping profession found that those reporting a more significant number of self-care interventions experienced lower burnout and compassion fatigue. Dr. Yazhini Srivathsal, a psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, said, “we need to make sure we are tending to our own emotional and physical well-being and needs while we are involved in providing care for others.” You’ve heard this many times – you need to put your oxygen mask on before you can help others.

4 Main Benefits of Self-Care:

  1. Self-awareness allows you to acknowledge your pain to yourselves. This will enable you to better understand other people’s experiences and reactions to pain.
  2. Appreciation for the value of the process is built once you are more aware of your feelings and challenges. This awareness allows you to engage in the process of developing strategies or techniques that can be effective.
  3. Externalizing the problem when devising strategies to cope with your own stress, anxiety, or burnout allows you to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. This level of self-care creates a protective distance between yourselves and the problems you face.
  4. Containing the problem allows you to feel more prepared to manage negative emotions and facilitate healing. This process creates a pause between “this is me” vs. “this is what I am going through. ”This is not YOUR life or who you are – it is what is happening to you – which means it is a behavior that can be changed.

Ways to Self-Care:

Even though you may understand the benefits of self-care, finding how to start can still feel confusing and overwhelming. It is best to start with a quick self-care assessment with the following questions:

Do you believe you deserve self-care?

Do you have a go-to list of activities?

Have you made self-care a habit?

 The responses will reveal areas where engagement is needed when creating self-care plans. Focus on 4 areas of self-care (mind- body – heart – spirit):

Cognitive/Mind: Helping people sift through thoughts and emotions can be stressful. It would be best if you felt you could clear your mind or thoughts that may inhibit your personal life. This self-care calls for setting aside time each day to release your thoughts. Here are 3 things you can do:

  • Read for leisure. 
  • Awareness of your inner self-talk, thoughts, judgments, and feelings can alleviate compassion fatigue. 
  • Use the VCRtool (validation, challenge, request) when communicating with others to express your thoughts and show compassion. 

Physical Health/Body: Caring for others has been known to affect people physically since stress can increase body weight and fatigue. A self-care plan that addresses your physical health concerns while delivering compassion may include the following:

  • Drink plenty of water. 
  • Get enough sleep. 
  • Try the 5 Senses Grounding Technique when experiencing anxiety, hyperarousal, difficulty concentrating, and other compassion fatigue symptoms.

Emotional/Heart: Finding things that oppose the negative emotions experienced with compassion fatigue is essential for inviting balance into your life. Ways to balance emotions can include:

  • Practice using positive affirmations such as praising yourself. 
  • Allow yourself to cry. You are STILL STRONG even when you cry. 
  • Start a gratitude practice

Spiritual/Spirit: Being involved with your spiritual side can provide relief. Spirituality is the belief that there is something greater than this day-to-day chaos. That can vary from God, nature, Gia, to energy, frequency, positivity, and your purpose, mission, or legacy.

  • An example of addressing your spiritual needs is setting aside time to listen to music. Music connects to your soul and offers an escape into an alternate reality!
  • Make time for self-reflection at home, in nature, in a journal, or with a therapist
  • Spend time in nature. The commute to the office, interactions with many people, and day-to-day administrative tasks can sometimes feel like too much.

If you do not have time to take care of yourself, look at the boundaries you are setting. Helping others without nourishing your soul can be overwhelming and lead to compassion fatigue. As soon as you recognize the signs of compassion fatigue, take steps to care for yourself. How can we start to shift the dialogue of saying no to others into saying yes to you? It is possible to make a choice to practice healthy self-care while caring for others.  

Ektha Aggarwal is a licensed South Asian Therapist and CEO of Shakti Therapy and Healing Services in Los Angeles, CA. Ektha specializes in working with South Asian communities to break the stigma around mental health and instill the concept of unwavering resilience. To learn more about how Shakti Therapy and Healing Services can support you, please visit or email Ektha at

Disclaimer: This blog provides general information about health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, website or in any linked materials are not intended and should not be considered, or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.



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