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  • Writer's pictureSkye White

What You’re Feeling is Probably Compassion Fatigue — And What You Can Do About It




Feeling exhausted from the state of the world? You’re not alone.

It’s easy to inundate ourselves with the news, given that it’s so accessible on our smartphones and other devices. It’s especially easy to become overwhelmed with the pandemic and other events simultaneously occurring, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the presidential election. If you’re feeling exhausted and overwhelmed and find yourself either fixating or dissociating, you may be experiencing something called compassion fatigue.

What is compassion fatigue?

Generally used to refer to the emotional and physical toll experienced by those in helping professions such as medical professionals, mental health providers, and first responders, compassion fatigue is mostly a result of empathy overload, resulting in a diminished capacity for compassion. Compassion fatigue comes about when we are emotionally overburdened and have difficulty empathizing or finding a sense of compassion for others. Although it has been studied extensively within helping professions, after months of navigating a pandemic, the general public has begun experiencing it as well.

Why should we be talking about this now?

2020 has been a challenging year. News coverage is full of information about the pandemic and, more recently, about systemic discrimination and protests. As humans, we have empathy, and we often look at problems as something to be solved. Unfortunately, we cannot quickly solve these societal issues. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless after being inundated with news story after news story of seemingly unsolvable problems.

What does compassion fatigue feel like?

We’re all individuals that experience our feelings differently. Some people may feel an emotional blunting or develop an emotional distance where others might become more acutely sensitive, having extreme emotional reactions to minor events and not being able to explain why. You might feel overwhelmed, powerless, or frustrated at politicians or other decision-makers. You might feel it physically as muscle pain, digestive problems, heaviness in a part of your body, or difficulty sleeping.

How to address and prevent empathy overload

Addressing compassion fatigue begins with noticing it. Notice what is going on with your emotional regulation and physical sensations, particularly when taking in stressful information. What emotions are coming up? Are you feeling angry, helpless, frustrated, overwhelmed, anxious? What does it feel like in your body? Muscle pain or heaviness in a particular location? Make a list of these feelings, so you’re able to reference them later.

Once you’re able to recognize your personal signs of compassion fatigue, you can start to work on processing the feelings and preventing them in the future. Some steps to aid in this are:

  • Acknowledging how you’re feeling and stepping away from what is making you feel that way. Perhaps you simply need a break from social media, news, or a heated discussion.

  • Developing a personalized self care routine. A self care routine can include things you can do to both prevent stress building up and cope in the moment. Self care is highly individualized and too in-depth to cover fully here but think about the activities that nourish you and make you feel at ease. Add these to the toolbox, along with some activities that can be done in the moment to calm you. These can be as simple as deep breathing or putting down the news. Making sure to practice self care regularly can lead to feeling overall more emotionally grounded.

  • Setting limits and boundaries surrounding your emotional capacity and sticking to them. Perhaps you only have the emotional capacity for one conversation per day about current events or only 15 minutes to read the news. It is reasonable and acceptable to uphold those boundaries.

  • Know when to seek help. If you’re having difficulty managing the stress of living in a pandemic, there is no shame in seeking professional help. Many therapists see clients remotely, and most insurance companies cover video visits. Telehealth is a safe and effective way to receive mental health support. Feel free to schedule an appointment.

Compassion fatigue can happen to anyone who feels like their empathy and compassion have been pushed to the limits. We’re living in unprecedented times, and it’s natural to begin to feel like our compassion is a finite resource. Taking care of ourselves emotionally and setting boundaries are crucial to replenishing our compassion.

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