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Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler

Burnout in Sensitive People: Empath Burnout, Shutdown and Compassion Fatigue

Are you feeling constantly drained, overwhelmed, and stressed? Do you feel like you're always giving and not getting anything back? If so, you may be experiencing empath burnout, empath shutdown, or compassion fatigue.

These are just different ways of describing burnout, a condition that is becoming ubiquitous in our society.

In this article, I will explore the signs of burnout and how they apply to highly sensitive people. I will also describe a critical skill you need to master as a sensitive person, empath, or however you prefer to call your ability to be tuned to others.

Being highly sensitive (or empath) means you have a unique capacity to understand or feel what other people are experiencing. But being attuned to others can also come with an immense amount of struggle.

Your sensitive nervous system is often hyperaware, continually scanning the environment for cues of other people's emotional and nervous system states. 

Not only can you feel the positive emotions of others, but you pick up on negative emotions, which can affect your wellbeing. You may even struggle to distinguish which emotions are yours and which belong to someone else.

1. What are empath burnout, empath shutdown, and compassion fatigue?

Empath burnout, empath shutdown, and compassion fatigue are just different terms used to highlight some key symptoms of burnout. Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet the demands of your life.

Always picking up on others' emotions can have a lasting toll on your physical health and mental wellbeing. Some people refer to this as empath burnout.

The world needs caring and empathetic people like you.

But, this can lead to struggles with emotional dysregulation, anxiety, and troubles separating your emotional state from others'.

2. What are the signs of empath burnout, empath shutdown and compassion fatigue vs burnout?

The key symptom of empath burnout, empath shutdown, and compassion fatigue is that you start to feel cynical or detached from the people and events around you. Your nervous system may be stuck in survival mode.

These are the key signs:

  • Feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope
  • Disconnection from your emotions or others' emotions
  • Emotional exhaustion

3. How do the signs of empath burnout differ from regular burnout?

On the other hand, “full-blown” burnout usually manifests with one or more additional symptoms, such as:

✔️ Being on high alert and feeling anxious⁣

✔️ Being highly reactive and irritable 

✔️ Having a hard time concentrating, experiencing “brain fog.”

✔️ Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.

✔️ Chronic tension at the body level (especially neck and shoulders, head, jaws, etc.)

✔️ Various symptoms pop up (irritable bowels, gut issues, skin issues, decreased immune defenses, etc.)

4. What are some strategies for preventing or recovering from empath burnout, empath shut down, and compassion fatigue vs. burnout?

Addressing and reversing full-blown burnout syndrome is a long-term commitment and requires the right approach. Still, in the vast majority of cases, your nervous system can completely bounce back and reverse the structural and functional damage caused by burnout.

On the other hand, if you are in the early stages of burnout and are just experiencing the signs of emotional overwhelm and exhaustion, as well as disconnection, cynism and detachment, you can focus on mastering an important skill: switching from empathy to compassion.

Compassion is when we're able to hold a safe container for other people's emotions, experience feelings of warmth, concern and care, as well as have a strong motivation to improve the other's wellbeing. However, compassion is feeling “for” and not feeling “with” the other, and it does not mean sharing the suffering of the other.

It may sound strange, but our ability to switch from empathy to compassion is entirely dependent on the state of our nervous system.

The vagus nerve has been called the “Nerve of Compassion” because the more we have toned and exercised our nervous system to return to a calm state, the more we can remain regulated when people around us are not.

And that is the foundational skill of compassion.

In other words, “empathic distress” which is at the root cause of empath burnout, empath shutdown and compassion fatigue, is a self-related emotion, is characterized by negative feelings, and results in withdrawal and non-social behavior.

On the other hand, compassion is an emotion that is focused on the other; positive feelings like love and kindness characterize it, and it's a foundational skill for a healthy, connected, and regulated sensitive nervous system.

5. How can you take care of yourself?

Let's say your empathy for others often leads you to shut down, go into survival mode, and experience chronic pain and stress. In that case, it's essential to work on your Nervous System to build regulation and master the skill of flexibility.

Having a flexible, toned nervous system means that when triggers arise – for example, seeing someone suffer – you can more quickly return to a regulated state. You can remain in your regulated state while helping the other person.

6. Conclusion

Empath burnout, empath shutdown, and compassion fatigue are all different ways of referring to similar things – emotional burnout and detachment in highly sensitive people.

The signs of empath burnout can differ from regular burnout but usually include feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope with disconnection from others' emotions and emotional exhaustion.

There are strategies for preventing empath burnout, including working on your Nervous System to build regulation and mastery of the skill of compassion.

If you're struggling with empath burnout, know that you're not alone and there are ways you can heal. That's what our team at Heal Your Nervous System specializes in.

Take the first step by taking our free Nervous System Review:

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Dr. Linnea Passaler

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About the Author

Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea has dedicated 20+ years serving patients, first to a small number of individuals and then to thousands of people all over the world through digital technology. As a highly sensitive person, she understands the challenges faced by those with a sensitive nervous system and created HYNS with them in mind.