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

It’s easy to inundate ourselves with news when our phones are with us 24-7.  It’s especially easy to become overwhelmed with the pandemic and other events simultaneously occurring (political turmoil, anyone?).  If you’re feeling 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 mental health providers and first responders, compassion fatigue is a response to empathy overload, resulting in a diminished capacity for compassion. We are too emotionally overburdened and can no longer extend the empathy we used to. It’s usually found among medical professionals, but after months of navigating a pandemic, the general public has begun experiencing it as well.

Why should we be talking about this now?

2020 was a challenging year, and we’re still recovering.  News coverage is full of information about the pandemic, systemic discrimination, division 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.  You may feel overwhelmed and helpless after being inundated with non-stop news of seemingly unsolvable problems.

What does compassion fatigue feel like?

Each of us experiences our feelings differently.  Some people may feel an emotional blunting, while others might become more acutely sensitive, having extreme emotional reactions to minor events.  You might feel overwhelmed, powerless, or frustrated at politicians, for instance.  This can manifest physically as muscle pain, digestive problems, heaviness in your body, or difficulty sleeping.  

How to address and prevent it

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.  Are you feeling angry, helpless, frustrated, anxious?  What does it feel like in your body? Muscle pain or heaviness in a particular location? If you journal, make a list of these feelings, so you can reference them later.

Once you can recognize your personal signs of compassion fatigue, you can work on processing the feelings and managing them as they come up.  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.  Do activities to both cope in the moment and prevent stress building up.  Self-care is highly individualized, but it means choosing activities that nourish you and give comfort. These can be as simple as deep breathing or taking a walk. Practicing self-care regularly and having a toolbox of coping tricks to choose from will help you feel more emotionally grounded.
  • Setting boundaries surrounding your emotional capacity and sticking to them. Perhaps you only have the 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.
  • Talk to a professional.  If you’re having difficulty managing the stress of living in a pandemic, there is no shame in seeking help.  Many therapists see clients remotely, and telehealth is a safe and effective way to receive mental health support. 

We’re living in unprecedented times, and it’s natural to begin to feel like our compassion is a finite resource.  Taking care of yourself emotionally is crucial to replenishing your compassion  -  you’ll need it as we continue into 2021.

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