Even if you’ve never heard the term “empathic distress” before, if you’re an educator, you’ve probably felt it at some point.


Empathic distress, also called (but different from) compassion fatigue, happens when teachers feel the pain of their students too acutely. Empathizing with so many different emotions and experiences can understandably become overwhelming. 


And when it does, teachers can develop significant emotional distress and become at risk of developing mental health problems of their own. Empathic distress also makes us less likely to do anything to help our students.


If this sounds familiar to you, know that there are ways to turn empathic distress into healthy compassion. Here’s how.


What is Empathic Distress?

Empathic distress is a term that psychologists use to describe what happens when empathizing with other people’s pain and suffering starts to cause significant emotional distress of one’s own. We see it often in helping professions like nursing, social work, and — yes — teaching. 


Researchers Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki define empathic distress as: “a strong aversive and self-oriented response to the suffering of others, accompanied by the desire to withdraw from a situation in order to protect oneself from excessive negative feelings.”


Empathic distress is often referred to as compassion fatigue, another common phenomenon in helping fields that can quickly lead to burnout when left unattended. 


But experts say that, in reality, the term “compassion fatigue” is a misguided term. Compassion, or the desire to help others, isn’t actually what causes fatigue for helpers. Instead, it’s empathy — or the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes.


Compassion and empathy seem like the same thing, but there are actually subtle and essential differences between the two. Empathy is the first step to human connection — being able to see the world through another person’s eyes, and feel what they feel. 


Compassion arises from empathy; when you can understand the other person’s joy and pain, then you’re more likely to be filled with feelings of warmth and concern for them. You’re more likely to want to share in their joy and help them when they are suffering. 


But the starting point of empathy can also lead to empathic distress. This happens when we over-identify with the person who is hurting. We take the other’s pain on as our own, and this is when empathic distress comes on. 


Experts now argue that the term “compassion fatigue” is inherently incorrect, because it’s not compassion that causes fatigue. It’s over-empathizing, or taking another’s pain on as our own. 

Empathy is a great start to human connection, but we must be able to maintain a separation between “self” and “other.” Otherwise, empathy leads to empathic distress instead of compassion. This is painful for us, and also doesn’t lead to help for the other person. 


Research has shown that people who feel compassion are much more likely to help the other person than people who feel empathic distress. That’s probably because if you’re under empathic distress, you’re overwhelmed by the emotional pain of the other person. Their pain is your pain. And in that state, you’re unable to help anyone.


To summarize, empathy can lead to either compassion or empathic distress. Compassion promotes positive feelings like warmth, concern, and a desire to help. Empathic distress, on the other hand, promotes stress, burnout, withdrawal, and emotional overwhelm.


How Empathic Distress Affects Teachers

Teachers, especially those who teach in marginalized or underserved communities, are very vulnerable to empathic distress. 


Trauma is very common, and it’s likely that, no matter where you teach, at least some of your students have faced traumatic situations at home. Especially in underfunded schools that don’t have enough mental health support, you may be put in the position of being a child counselor to these students on top of being a teacher.


You got into the teaching profession because you care, so it’s natural to empathize, and even over-empathize, with your students’ pain. On top of that, teachers may not have as much training about compassion fatigue and empathic distress as mental health professionals do. You may not have been taught how to recognize the signs or how to disconnect from the emotions of work when you’re at home.


Some of the signs of empathic distress for teachers include:


  • Feeling helplessness about relieving students’ suffering
  • Self-blame: “If I could only do something, then this wouldn’t be happening to them.”
  • Ruminating on particular students’ situations while at home
  • Feeling secondary symptoms of traumatic stress that you seem to have taken on from students
  • Unexplained physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches
  • A desire to withdraw from your students because it feels like “too much”
  • Dreading going to work or seeing specific students who you know are suffering

What Teachers Can Do to Protect their Mental Health

Luckily, once you’ve recognized the signs of empathic distress, there are many things you can do to protect your mental health.


First, experts recommend trying to turn empathic distress into compassion. Remember, both empathic distress and compassion both have the same seed: empathy. But while empathic distress can immobilize us and make us feel overwhelmed, compassion motivates us to help the person who is suffering.


The good news is that compassion is a state that can be practiced and encouraged. If you feel empathic distress, then that means you’re already an empathetic person — and this is a wonderful start to a compassion practice. 


One way to cultivate compassion is through a loving-kindness meditation, a practice in which you send loving kindness to another person. You can also start with sending this to yourself. 


To cultivate compassion, it’s also important that you achieve balanced empathy — and not become consumed in another’s suffering. Practice self-awareness. Check in with yourself, regularly, about how you’re feeling. Ask yourself: “Are these my feelings? Or are they my student’s?” 


Shift your perspective. Focus on what you can do in this situation to help, and catch yourself when you start drowning in the emotions. Take stock of the facts of the situation, and not just the emotions. This doesn’t mean that you can no longer empathize with your students. It simply means maintaining a healthy boundary between “you” and “other.”


Lastly, implementing a regular mindfulness practice can help you become more aware of your own feelings. This can lead to a better ability to discern between your students’ experiences and feelings and your own. Mindfulness can also help you reduce your own stress and anxiety and improve your overall well-being.


By starting a school-based mindfulness program, both you and your students can reap the benefits of mindfulness. Calm Classroom has decades of experience helping schools like yours start a mindfulness program that works for them. Get in touch with us to learn more about our trauma-informed program.


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