The phenomenon of compassion fatigue
It’s not just you: lately the news has been exhausting. Although it’s taboo to admit, it’s sometimes equally as exhausting to feel like you have to express the requisite anger, disbelief and sadness about the bad news. When so many bad things are happening constantly, empathy can begin to seem like a burden.
If you’re having trouble connecting to the people most affected by this bad news – like those affected by the wildfires in America or closer to home in Alexandra – you’re not a bad person. You may be experiencing compassion fatigue, a condition usually seen in those who work with terminally ill people, victims of natural disasters, or injured animals, but which can also affect everyday empathetic folks who are just paying attention.
So what is compassion fatigue, and how do you combat it when the hits just keep coming? Marie Claire talked to experts to find out what you need to know.
What exactly is it?
To put it in clinical terms, compassion fatigue is a traumatic stress syndrome, where a caretaker’s ability to empathise with those in their care weakens. In short, it means you find you don’t care about things you know you should care about.
‘It’s the fatigue of feeling compassionate as a result of contact with suffering people or animals who are afraid and need comfort,’ says Dr Charles Figley, PhD, director of Tulane University Traumatology Institute, via email to Marie Claire. ‘The fatigue can come instantly, because it may have reminded some of past traumatic events, such as being abandoned at some time, or [even] being separated from one of our children at the mall.’
That means if you’re reminded of something personally traumatic while witnessing others’ suffering, you could be at risk of compassion fatigue.
Who gets compassion fatigue? Can the news trigger it?
‘Simply put, caregivers are at risk of being traumatised by the caregiving work they choose to do,’ says Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. Though she says that not everyone in a caregiving profession is at risk of compassion fatigue, ‘caregivers are empathetic, which means we open our hearts to the pain and suffering of others.’ While Patricia says that ‘watching the news in and of itself most likely does not cause compassion fatigue,’ those who already have it [‘it’ being compassion fatigue] and watch distressing news, might experience higher levels of it.
Patricia also points out that people with certain traits are predisposed to compassion fatigue, like those who have a heightened sense of responsibility (such as those who were forced, by family dysfunction early on, to take care of younger siblings), those with a lack of personal and professional coping skills (those who never had healthy behaviours modelled for them), or unresolved early traumas (those who don’t take the time to process past trauma).
For his part, Dr Figley says that an inability to connect emotionally with, for example, the migrant children at the USA-Mexico border (referring to the Trump-induced separation of migrant children and their parents), is symptomatic of compassion fatigue. ‘The struggle to connect means that they’ve removed themselves from providing empathy and compassion because their emotional support can’t stop the unthinkable regarding the kids,’ he says. ‘They had an immediate impact of the news and attempted to emotionally distance themselves from the details – good move! – but they were still affected, like how phobics are affected by things they fear.’
Bad news is triggering because of the trauma we’re all carrying around, which is why it can feel like what’s happening to separated families is happening on a more personal level – and thereby make us want to tune it out as an act of self-defence. ‘News consumption is like a drug that, in the right dosage, is useful, since knowledge and truth are power, but which can facilitate compassion fatigue,’ says Dr Figley. ‘Those who experience compassion fatigue have not succeeded in fully processing the reality of the kids [separated from their families] and cannot effectively detach themselves to function well. There’s still an emotional fatigue.’
What are the symptoms?
Compassion fatigue may want to make you just clock out and turn the news off, but it can also come out in more destructive ways. Patricia says that in addition to more obvious tells, like sadness, apathy, and bottled-up emotions, it can also manifest as substance abuse, lack of personal hygiene habits, emotional outbursts, physical ailments that keep coming back, and traumatic flashbacks or nightmares. ‘Our overworked, stressed bodies are sending us a signal that self-care and healing is required,’ she says.
How can I fight it?
First, the bad news (yes, more): Once you identify compassion fatigue in yourself, you can only manage the symptoms, says Patricia. But the good news is, it’s entirely doable. The key is, as they say on aeroplanes, to put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help other people.
Patricia suggests practising ‘authentic, sustainable self-care daily.’ She continues, ‘We do this by naming the behaviours and actions that fill us up. Swimming, reading, journaling, walking in nature, sharing highly functional relationships, cooking, gardening – whatever it is that fills us up and provides feelings of hope and wellness, we need to do daily. Focusing on ourselves is the best thing we can do. If we are depleted, we have nothing to give others.’
Dr Figley adds that doing our part for the cause we are concerned about, even in small ways, can help. ‘A sense of clarity about your values is important,’ he explains, and says that even just sending a tweet can help. But ultimately, you have to take care of yourself. ‘The other thing we all need is effective methods of self-care: stress management, skills for facilitating good sleep, living a healthy life, and [making sure you] have people to talk to. Being connected to a community of friends and family is important at any age.’
Even though it can feel really hard to want to tune back into the bad news cycle – it’s important we don’t forget about the people affected. If an issue has moved you strongly, find out what you can do to help.