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Caring Safely

Hearing or seeing sexual violence can take an emotional toll on you. Witnessing and hearing about the effects of abuse and violence can negatively affect you. This is an inescapable consequence of being a supporter and/or helper. It is important to recognize and understand your reactions.

Can you really care too much? YES!

Compassion Fatigue and Burnout is Real

“Compassion fatigue is caused by empathy. It is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people. Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” (Dr. Charles Figley, Professor, Paul Henry Kurzweg Distinguished Chair Director, Tulane Traumatology Institute at Tulane University, New Orleans, LA)

Personal Reactions to a Sexual Violence Disclosure

You may:

  • Feel anger, fear, grief, concern, uncertainty.
  • Have doubts about your skills and knowledge, or worry that you might create distress or not have an appropriate response.
  • Have fears of making it worse, dealing with distress, getting it wrong, being unaware of cultural issues, making judgements, or be worried about legal ramifications.
  • Feel uncertain about appropriate procedure, system responses, resources and referrals.

“First responders and helpers bear witness on a daily basis to human cruelty, injustice, and the resulting emotional pain. They can become emotionally overwhelmed and may experience, to a certain degree, the same terror, rage, and despair as the people they serve.” (Herman, 1997)


Signs You May Be Experiencing Burnout and/or Compassion Fatigue
  • Without knowing what you are feeling, you are at a loss to manage those feelings.
  • If you are overwhelmed by negative emotions, you diminish the thinking brain’s capacity to focus.
  • You can become disinterested, or worse, disbelieving of a survivor’s experiences.
  • When you are unaware of your negative emotional reactions, you are more likely to respond in ways that are unhelpful.
  • You may try to protect yourself by distancing, minimizing, and emotional numbing.
  • You may find yourself minimizing the effects of abuse.
  • You may experience increased emotional disconnection or passiveness.
  • You may start to see women who have been abused as manipulative.
Compassion Fatigue/Burnout Symptoms

Lowered concentration, apathy, rigidity, disorientation, minimization, preoccupation with trauma.

Powerlessness, anxiety, guilt, anger, numbness, fear, helplessness, sadness, depression, depleted, shock, blunted or enhanced affect. Experiencing troubling dreams. Suddenly and involuntarily recalling a frightening experience while working with others.

Irritable, withdrawn, moody, poor sleep, nightmares, appetite change, hyper-vigilance, isolating oneself.

Questioning life’s meaning, pervasive hopelessness, loss of purpose, questioning of religious beliefs, loss of faith/skepticism.

Sweating, rapid heartbeat, breathing difficulty, aches and pains, dizziness, impaired immune system, headaches, difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Managing Your Emotions + Grounding Exercises

1. Education about emotional function is an important part of managing your emotions when you have received a sexual violence disclosure and/or witnessed sexual violence.
2. Emotions communicate to others, organize/motivate action, and can be self-validating.

Self-Regulation can be practiced through various grounding exercises.

Grounding Exercises if you become emotionally overwhelmed in the moment

a) The 54321 “game”:

  • Name 5 things you can see in the room with you.
  • Name 4 things you can feel (“chair on my back” or “feet on floor”)
  • Name 3 things you can hear right now (“fingers tapping on keyboard” or “tv”)
  • Name 2 things you can smell right now (or, 2 things you like the smell of)
  • Name 1 good thing about yourself

b) Re-orient yourself in place and time by asking yourself some or all of these questions:

  • Where am I?
  • What is today?
  • What is the date?
  • What is the month?
  • What is the year?
  • How old am I?
  • What season is it?

More information on emotion regulation.

Tips to Prevent Burnout and/or Compassion Fatigue

1. Practice Self-Care: Taking care of your own basic needs when working with others is crucial. If you aren’t well yourself, you will have trouble helping others. Airline flight attendants instruct passengers, “In the case of an emergency, place your oxygen mask on first before helping someone else”, because you need to secure your own air supply first, before you are able and ready to assist others.

2. Set Emotional Boundaries: Caring for individuals who may have experienced a traumatic event(s), requires empathy and emotional involvement from you. It is necessary to establish boundaries between yourself and those you are helping so that you don’t carry their emotional pain as your own.

Name your limits: You can’t set good limits if you don’t know where you stand, so identify where you stand emotionally, spiritually, mentally. Your feelings help you identify your limits.

Tune into your feelings: Resentment usually comes from the feeling of being taken advantage of or feeling unappreciated. When someone acts in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s a sign that your boundaries are being crossed.

Give yourself permission: Give yourself permission to set boundaries. Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy relationship, but a sign of self-respect and self-compassion.

3. Build and Use a Support Network: Social support helps to minimize stress reactions, such as compassion fatigue, in helpers. A support network can act as a lifeline in navigating stressful situations.

4. Develop and Utilize Self Awareness: As caring and compassionate people who help students, you need to develop an “observing eye” with which you notice your interactions with others, your thoughts and feelings, as well as your stress levels throughout the day. Self-awareness can be developed through journaling, discussion with others, counselling, awareness activities, spiritual activities, meditation and other reflective work.

5. Maintain Balance: Taking care of yourself as you care for others is extremely important. Keeping balance in your life can help anchor you and prevent you from feeling worn out.
Information from Phoenix Society.

Information from

When to Ask for Support
  • If…you have difficulty maintaining healthy boundaries and you aren’t sure how to set limits.
  • If…the survivor’s needs are beyond your current level of skills or knowledge.
  • If…the sexual violence disclosure circumstance is too similar to your own and you feel an emotional reaction.