compassion fatigue in the new decade…

Acres upon acres of burnt rainforests in Brazil. Anorexic looking polar bears in the Arctic. Drowned refugees in the Mediterranean sea. Trump (enough said). And the list of bad news goes on and on, and on a 24/7 loop, like a never ending nightmare. And too often we don’t stop and think about the impact of these negative images and stories. We seldom question, let alone try to understand, what they are doing to our psyche, to our children and our humanity as a whole. 

On the one hand, these negative images help us to ‘stay up to date’ with local and global news. With the way things have been going in the past decade (and longer), it is hard to not be informed, especially when we have information is right at our fingertips. Wars, famines, rape, identity crisis, etc, abound every crook and cranny of every society. And we cannot simply turn a blind eye to one or the other. The more we also know from others about a certain crisis, the more steps we can take to prevent and be prepared to deal with it if it should knock on our own front door. But at what cost do we continue to feed negative news into our psyche, or which ones do we tell to our children, if any? 

On the other hand, the barrage of negative news has many psychological effects. I will touch on two. For starters, more and more people are developing psychological disorders. Whether the news is a direct cause of certain mental illnesses remains debatable, yet we cannot ignore the high rise in certain news/internet related disorders. For instance, many say that they feel helpless. This sense of helplessness has prompted feelings of depression, insomnia, and even strokes. Some people have developed a serious addiction to the news that they can’t tolerate five minutes of the day without refreshing their CNN website or share some piece of news with their loved ones. In some cases, this intolerability has developed into a sort of social ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO)–that is, they must stay glued to their screens at all times to get the latest local or global news otherwise they cannot go on about their day. Unfortunately, in many places where mental health infrastructures are weak or non-existent, people cannot receive proper treatment due to under-qualified professionals and/or lack of financial investment on needed services. In some developed countries, professionals are desperately grappling with the increased numbers of new and not so new diagnoses, creating new treatments as well as taking preventive measures. Almost everywhere in the world, the mental health iceberg is trying to not sink… 

And second, it is draining our human quality to be empathic. The term ‘compassion fatigue’ is often used in tandem with empathy in the field of psychology. I will diverge a bit here in order to explain it. Compassion fatigue is the desire to help. The term is not new, although it was first used in 1992 by historian Carla Joinson in an article where she talked about nurses working in emergency departments experiencing ‘a unique form of burnout that affects people in the caregiving profession’. A nurse named ‘Jackie’ explained how she lost her favourite patient despite ‘desperate efforts’ and having ‘lingering feelings of helplessness and anger’ afterwards. Anyone–be it professionals, family members, etc–providing ’empathetic support’ can develop some of the same symptoms as their clients/patients such as anxiety or some other form of emotional disturbance. The closer/more involved you are to the negative outcome of the care, the more damaging it will be for you personally. Think of it as inhaling second hand smoke if you are not a smoker.

If you have ever cared for a grandmother with Alzheimer’s and Dementia, a sick partner or child, you might understand what I am talking about. If you have not, let me just say that your stress load is tripled, if not more. And it can manifest in various ways too, such as bad sleep, quick mood swings, bad hygiene, to name a few. I have personally experienced compassion fatigue as a caregiver myself on more than one occasion. As a therapist who sometimes has difficult child cases, particularly those who have been sexually or physically abused, I am constantly reminded about it. On a very personal level, my grandmother had Alzheimers and Dementia. When her health really deteriorated, I found myself spiralling downhill like her. Because she could not do anything for herself anymore, including wiping her own butt, I became her personal assistant, wiping poop and pee, taking her to her doctor’s appointments, spoon feeding her, to nam a few innocuous routines. And I was in a Research Masters program full-time. I hated these new and sudden demands on my time and energy. But I hated even more how frustrated I would get at her for the simplest things like putting a spoon in her soup and scooping it. If she asked for help when I was trying to catch a break, I would snap at her, then feel like the worst person on earth. Many nights I lost my sleep because of her annoying hallo, hallos; I often shouted at her to be quiet, but it was useless because she could not even remember that she had just said it, or has been saying it for the past half hour to an hour. 

The word ‘stress’ doesn’t even capture my state with her, even with a fulltime nurse by her side. I felt despair and overlooked. Not to mention that I was afraid for her, felt alone, starved of compassion. A few times, I wanted out of the situation and sought solutions, including finding an apartment that was only 5 minutes away by foot. I was pouring all of my emotional resources towards her and it seemed that it was never enough because there were never any ‘thank yous’ or other comforting remarks from her. Research has shown that stress, anxiety and uncertainty can reduce our levels of empathy. But it felt more like my empathy was being used up faster due to the greater demand, day and night. There was never a pause. While the effects of compassion fatigue on healthcare workers are real and continue to be undocumented, I will resume back to our topic. 

So how do negative news stories and images impact our ability to empathise? The news media preys on our weaknesses–that is, it often tries to make us feel vulnerable. It sensationalises and shocks us with negative images almost all of the time. By design, any negative image will upset us, and as a result, we will try our darnest to avert our attention from it. We do this in order to self-perserve. Moreover, when many of us do not click on a story for various reasons, the media quickly moves on to the next big crisis. That is why we often do not hear in-depth analysis of a crisis for more than a week at a time (I mean who wants to hear about the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi for a whole year?). Interestingly in 2016, Americans tended to focus more of their attention on cyclones and earthquakes than other crisis in the world such as famine in Africa. The reason being that natural disasters had “one-shot problems with specific solutions” (Moeller, 1991). In other words, when there are clear ways to help, Americans will pay attention, including giving their money to help alleviate a situation. Makes sense, right? But it is problematic. 

It would seem that we are becoming less empathetic to stories that take a long time to resolve. Complex disasters such as wars, famines, and even climate change seem to be unimportant in the immediate sense. We become numb or indifferent beyond our own moral understanding. But remember, compassion fatigue is the desire to help. There simply is no compassion fatigue if we do not have compassion; if you see someone suffering due to a land slide because of climate change, would you not want to reduce, let alone prevent, the suffering in both the short and longterm? Would you not want to pressure officials of a country to take the necessary steps to make sure citizens will be protected now and the future? It is true that we cannot possibly solve EVERY single problem that comes across our screens with one donation, a petition signature, a call to elected officials, a vote or joining a protest. However, all of these can bring about social awareness and social change, even if they are small changes. As the Dalia Lama XIV once said: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” Be that pestering, blood sucking mosquito…

Our ability as humans to empathise is what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Baron-Cohen in fact claims that much like our height and other noticeable traits follow a natural bell curve distribution. While a select few have extraordinary levels of empathy (i.e. look at Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who served 27 years in prison for trying to end apartheid and create a rainbow nation in post-colonial South Africa) or have zero empathy (i.e. look at narcissistic personalities and psychopaths), most people fall in the middle of the curve. This seems to suggest that we need empathy to survive. It has helped us to adapt in many ways that we can count. 

I am not saying that our empathy is always useful or that it always works. In fact, many a times we will fail to feel what others are feeling, even when we try very hard. But what good is compassion if we do not use it?

I argue that we should use our empathy. How do we do that? I propose three ways: first, whenever we see a negative story, we should try to make the story personal. For instance, whenever you read a story of the dead, try to connect with them as people, not just as nameless victims (be mindful though of reading too many dead stories). Second, be angry and outraged. Don’t withdraw or distance yourself. And lastly, if you cannot empathise with an international story, look for a tragedy that is local.

While you are busy trying to remain empathic (and sane), do not forget to care for yourself. You cannot do your job right if you are not ok mentally (or your a very good faker, borderline psychopath). While some of us can hold the negative images in our minds and not necessarily feel them in our bodies, and visa versa, for most of us, the effect is there, and sometimes in both mind and body. I would encourage you to establish and maintain an ’emotional endurance’. Take breaks and try to reduce your own stress. Life itself is stressful. Hang out with your friends, watch those funny memes before going to bed, knit a scarf for someone in need. Create a distance with the news but not so much that you become a stranger or numb to other’s/global suffering. Most of all, keep your moral compass swaying in the unbiased direction. That does not necessarily mean multiplying your dollars/euros with how much sympathy you feel for others in their dire predicament (if you enjoy donating, then please let me not stop you); rather, help the people in need the most. That decision will take a great level of logic, and not so much an emotional one. 

In a world that is technologically advancing at a rapid pace and full of calamities of various sizes, we need to keep our empathy trait intact and ever burning (no pun intended here). It is empathy that makes our world a better place for all, even if we feel that there is not much that we can do…   

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