Compassion Fatigue in a Globalized Society

What happens to our empathy with repeated exposure to suffering and tragedy?

Posted Jul 25, 2016

Compassion fatigue is a decline in a person’s capacity to feel empathy and compassion towards the suffering of others.  It has been found in people who work directly with traumatized victims in heart wrenching, emotional environments: nurses, care givers, psychotherapists, animal rescue workers, first responders.

publicdomainpictures.net
Source: publicdomainpictures.net

People with compassion fatigue can show anxiety, dissociation, sleeplessness, nightmares, a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness, and a persistent negative attitude.  There can also be somatic symptoms such as nausea, headaches, and vertigo. Constant compassion for others without engaging in self care is simply not healthy.

How does compassion fatigue affect our everyday lives?  

The general, interested public also internalizes trauma – from relentless, horrific stories in the media. We know from past experience, for example, that constant exposure to images from the attack on the World Trade Center created fear and intense suspicion in many people for months after the tragic events.

In general, frequently watching images and reading stories of widespread tragedy may bring about emotional exhaustion, while influencing people to become desensitized, cynical, and resistant to helping those who are suffering.  In addition to personal implications, compassion fatigue in the general public has societal implications as well, especially when mass donations are needed for large scale disasters.

commons.wikimedia
Source: commons.wikimedia

The past two years alone have seen deadly shootings in a Paris magazine office, an assault rifle attack during a concert in Paris, lethal explosions and gunfire at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, a truck bomb in Baghdad that killed more than 200 people, an assault rifle attack in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida that left 49 people dead, a truck attack in Nice, France the killed more than 80 people, and more recently, a mass shooting in Munich – in addition to refugee crises, war fatalities, and natural disasters.  These days, the American flag seems to be flying at half mast most of the time.   

What can we do to manage the internalized trauma from tragedy and suffering in the news, while also staying informed about worldly events

1) Pay attention to the signals of compassion fatigue, which can include obsession with a particular tragedy, sleeplessness, inability to concentrate, anxiety, and persistent negative thoughts.

2) Work directly with your feelings. If you feel agitated or worn out with concern about a particular event, step back, take a break, and take care of yourself. It’s permissible and healthy to find pleasure in other activities. For able-bodied people, walking is one simple activity that can help immensely and uplift the psyche.

3) Instead of avoiding world events entirely, set up a schedule for viewing news reports and for getting away from these reports.  Similarly, set aside time to think about these events and develop strategies for turning off thinking about them.

4)  Actively respond to tragic events in a way that is healthy for you.  Do something. Participate in a fund drive or an organized collection of basic goods for the affected populations. Write about the issues in a journal or a blog.  Reach out to people you know who have friends or family in the affected areas of the world.  

commons.wikimedia.org
Source: commons.wikimedia.org

5)  Talk to friends. Find out how they are managing with the most recent set of tragic events.  

6) Seek information about compassion fatigue and what clinicians call secondary traumatic stress (STS).

Living in a globalized society means exposure to tragedy and suffering around the world. Avoiding or denying this tragedy and suffering is only a short term solution.  A more balanced approach is to stay informed about the world, increasing our knowledge and understanding of people outside our own communities, while also staying informed about ourselves – knowing when to engage with news of disturbing events and when to engage in active self care.