How to unpack your emotions - to make sure you're not suffering from 'compassion fatigue'

It’s not always easy to recognise that we’re overloaded but knowing what’s weighing you down is the key to a lighter, happier life.

(Image credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

We all have times when we struggle to prioritise our emotional needs and it can leave us physically and emotionally exhausted, unable to sleep well and feeling irritable.

It’s what trauma expert Dr Eric Gentry calls ‘compassion fatigue’ – a sign that our internal 'emotional backpack' is overflowing because we’re struggling to prioritise our own emotional needs.

The level of compassion fatigue a person experiences changes from one day to the next. Even very healthy people with optimal life/work balance and self-care strategies can experience it when they’re overloaded. Life events such as divorce, death, illness or simply reaching midlife can trigger and accelerate compassion fatigue, especially if you don’t have anyone or anywhere to express your feelings.

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An exercise called ‘unpacking your emotional backpack’ is a helpful way to prevent compassion fatigue, from Amanda Seyderhelm. She is a play and creative arts therapist who enables children and families to make sense of their feelings through play. She teaches professionals and parents how to unpack their emotional backpacks.

It allows you to have difficult conversations without experiencing a strong emotional reaction of fear, shock, anger or worry because you remember something bad that has happened in your past. By not being ‘triggered’ in this way, you’ll find you enjoy happier, more connected relationships with yourself and your family.

The aim is to be happier, reflective rather than reactive, and able to nurture understanding, positivity and joy in yourrelationships. Youwill feel lighter in mind and heart, have more energy, be more accessible to your family, stay even-tempered and make clearer decisions.

How to 'unload your emotional backpack'

1. Untangle your feelings with creative pursuits

Adults tend to overanalyse a problem (left-brain thinking), which means they can become detached from their emotions (right-brain feeling). We need both right and left sides to be talking to each other to function optimally.

If the problem is emotional, rational left-brain thinking won’t solve it. We need to use a creative playful medium like drawing to unlock the tangle of our feelings and make sense of them. When adults get to ‘play out’ their issues through creative mediums like art and writing, it helps them articulate their understanding verbally.

compassion fatigue

Try this. A creative check-in like drawing (or using adult colouring books) connects you to your right brain. Ring-fence 30 minutes for yourself before you leave the house – with practice, you will do this in 15 and stop the world to do it! Fill a small box with coloured crayons and get a sheet of A4 plain paper. Sit quietly, phone off. Ask yourself: how am I feeling right now? Select crayon colours intuitively and draw a picture that represents your feeling.

No critique, this isn’t about art perfection. Reflect on your drawing and select one word that represents your feeling. Write the word on the drawing. You are meeting yourself on the page. Simply acknowledge whatever shows up.

2. Communicate any issues compassionately

Constructive communication needs a compassionate heart. Words can lead to hurt and pain, so it helps to replace patterns of defending or attacking with compassion. A four-step method for learning this sort of ‘non-violent communication’ was devised by the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. You can access your compassion by completing a sequence of four statements.

Try this. Select a recent conversation that upset you and write out your answers:

  • When I remember a recent upsetting conversation (describe this conversation).
  • I feel these emotions (identify emotions).
  • What I really need and value is (say what you need and value).
  • My request of you is (say what you request from the other person).

Here’s an example of a completed sequence: When I argue with my partner, I feel upset and distressed, because I need and value calmness in my life. Would you be willing to tell me what is upsetting you so we can work out a solution that means we are both heard?

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The bold type highlights the ‘states of mind’ you go through on this journey, which end with you making a request of the other person. Note, you are never blaming them for your feelings, nor are you seeking to change them. What you are doing is sharing your feelings, telling them what you need and asking them if they are willing to engage with you in creating change together. The more you practise this exercise, the more powerful the results will be.

3. Get to know yourself by writing our your 'story'

Writing your ‘authentic self’ story can help you to ‘find your voice’, understand who you truly are, and address the negative chit-chat inside your head. It helps to unlock psychophysical suffering by showing you what you’ve internalised, such as scripts you may have inherited from your parents.

These affect your outlook and your decision-making, so becoming self-aware helps you understand why your buttons can get pressed, and you will find empathic engagement with yourself and with others. For example, you won’t fly off the handle about something that isn’t terribly important like untidiness because you’ll recognise you inherited an intolerance of mess from your parents.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Try this. Select three small objects from your house or garden. Spend five minutes looking at each object, notice how you feel. Write, ‘Once upon a time, there was an object called X.’ Name your object and write its story. No editing, just write until you have completed one side of A4. Read the story aloud. Where does this resonate in your body? Is it your story or someone else’s?

4. Evaluate how stress affects your body

Do you have a good sense of how your body communicates to you when it is stressed and overwhelmed? Recognising the physical symptomsof compassion fatigue will help you to reflect on the causes and open the door to finding solutions.

Try this. If, for example, you feel a ‘tightness’ in your throat, draw a picture of your throat. Focus on whichever body part is carrying stress. This builds awareness between you and your body.

5. Seek help

If you still feel you need help, the NHS offers free counselling sessions (usually up to six) through a GP referral, usually for anxiety-related issues. You can also find a therapist through the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Unpacking your Backpack for adults is available as a digital programme at

It costs £47 to download and will guide you through exercises, with videos that will help to support development.