The year is still young but already so many people are exhausted by bad news. More than 20 people dead, a billion animals wiped out and almost 5 million hectares burnt in Australia’s fires. If that isn’t bad enough, there is a prospect of another war in the Middle East. We are all praying for a peaceful resolution between the US and Iran, and to top it all off even the royal family is mal-functioning. It seems to go from bad to worse. I don’t know, but I have to limit my exposure to bad news, otherwise I find myself feeling very down. They call this phenomenon, compassion fatigue.
What is compassion fatigue?
I read an online article about compassion fatigue recently. Psychologist Charles Figley defines compassion fatigue as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress”. Symptoms include behavioural changes (becoming easily startled, a reduced ability to remain objective), physical changes (exhaustion, anxiety and cardiac symptoms) and emotional changes (numbness, depression, and “decreased sense of purpose”). Health professionals – nurses, ambulance medics and doctors who are over-exposed to trauma – often suffer from compassion fatigue and it stops them doing their best for their patients. But the general population can get compassion fatigue, especially when we are saturated with reports of bad news about bush fires.
Empathy is what holds our community together. It is important to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes and feel what they are feeling, but what happens when we feel bombarded every day with the details of trauma and grief? What happens when you watch hours and hours of bushfire coverage? Of people who have lost everything? Of dying animals? Of evacuees? What happens when your country wants more empathy than you can give? That’s when you need to step back and look for happiness so you have the strength to keep going.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue
- Feeling burdened by the suffering of others
- Blaming others for their suffering
- Isolating yourself
- Loss of pleasure in life
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor sleep
- Physical and mental fatigue
- Bottling up your emotions
- Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness
- Frequent complaining about your work or your life
- Excessive use of drugs or alcohol
- Poor self-care
- Beginning to receive a lot of complaints about your work or attitude
The history of compassion fatigue
The term “compassion fatigue” first appeared in print in a 1992 article by the historian Carla Joinson. While observing nurses in emergency departments, she noticed “a unique form of burnout that affects people in the caregiving profession”. Compassion fatigue comes from wanting to help others. There is no compassion fatigue without compassion. But you cannot be an effective caregiver if you are burnt out and traumatised. Caring people watching disasters unfold on TV are also at risk of compassion fatigue. Social media and the TV news exposes you to HUGE problems you can’t solve. Remember you can help in small, but meaningful ways – you can donate money, vote, go to protests. Do what you need to do, but if you are still feeling overwhelmed you need to take some time out.
Turn off the TV
ABC news has recorded some of its largest ever audiences during the bushfires, but sometimes you need to take a break from distress. Yes, if you are safe away from the fires, turn off your radio or TV. You should still stay informed of what is happening but it is useful to limit (but not totally avoid) access to ongoing media about the disaster. This is because repeated exposure to news on a disaster or event can trigger further anxiety. This is especially important for children who, compared with adults, are less equipped to distinguish between real and imagined risks.
Return to normal routines
You must re-establish your normal routines. Routine is useful to help increase a sense of predictability into situations – especially when recent events, like the bushfires, have been unpredictable. Do simple things like have your meals at usual times, or go to bed when you normally do. Go shopping, visit friends, and go to the movies. Keep enjoying all of life’s pleasures. You might feel guilty being happy when so many people are unhappy but you are serving no purpose making yourself miserable. You will be more effective if you limit the effects of empathy fatigue.
Get enough sleep
During difficult times, it’s normal to sleep badly but this should decrease over time. Have a bedtime routine, and avoid caffeine, nicotine and other stimulants. Alcohol also decreases the quality of sleep and is more likely to lead to waking up during the night – so encourage family and friends to avoid alcohol if their sleep is bad. Avoid electronic devices at bedtime or in bed. Don’t lie in bed reading about bad news.
Use stress management techniques
Do not to bottle up or block out your feelings. Talk to good friends about your feelings. Exercise is useful to deal with stress and anxiety. Even a gentle walk or deep breathing can be useful.
My method of coping with bad news in the media
This is what works best for me. Read about it, listen to the radio or watch it on TV ONCE only, especially if you are already feeling bad. If you are really feeling anxious have a few days off from the news and then come back and inform yourself but limit your amount of media. After you have informed yourself, FEEL IT. It is alright to feel sad, angry and disgusted. Give yourself 15 to 30 minutes to let these emotions sink in. Next ask yourself what you can do. You might want to give money, but you may feel you want to do more. It is not always practical to travel to a disaster zone, like a bushfire, and start helping out, instead look for causes close to home. I am sure there are a thousand needs in your own neighbourhood. Do you have the time to visit a nursing home, or cook at a soup kitchen or work in an op-shop raising money for charity? I know this is not directly alleviating suffering, but doing any good work will help you feel less defeated, demoralised and fatigued. You will also have the chance to make new friends and do something new.
This may sound unconventional but if you are suffering empathy fatigue, just put your hand up to do something good and you will soon be feeling like your old self again.
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ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.