With COVID, mass shootings, monkeypox, the fall of abortion rights, racially fueled hate crimes and the exploding mental health crisis ― just to name a few ― it can really feel like we’re stuck in a black hole of bad news.
There is only so much trauma a person can take before it starts to chip away at their mental and physical health. When you’re exposed to constant stressors, as we’ve all been over the past few years, it’s natural to experience compassion fatigue, a type of empathy burnout that can occur after being excessively exposed to negative events.
Compassion fatigue looks a bit different from person to person but often leaves people feeling exhausted, detached, emotionally disconnected and helpless. For example, maybe you find yourself feeling less affected by horrific shootings, or perhaps you feel indifferent to protests on reproductive justice or unable to help people living in Ukraine. Compassion fatigue is real, and it’s no surprise that so many people are experiencing it after enduring an extreme amount of pain, rage, disbelief and worry on multiple fronts.
Compassion fatigue also doesn’t happen overnight. It takes weeks, sometimes months or years, to take hold. By the time most people recognize they’re struggling, it’s fully surfaced.
“Usually we’re gradually shifting into this state of becoming less and less capable of coping with the stress of new events, and therefore, when we get big news — like what happened with the most recent ruling on abortion — we might not really have the emotional reserve to cope with such big news,” Sheehan D. Fisher, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told HuffPost.
Here are a few signs you might be dealing with compassion fatigue:
A shift in your mood
Some people may start to notice a difference in their moods and feel more agitated or irritable on a daily basis. Those with compassion fatigue tend to develop a more pessimistic view of the world and begin to lack hope about the future.
There’s “just feeling generally unhappy or apathetic or having difficulty in maintaining compassion or empathy in a way that is typical for you,” explained Jessica Stern, a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Health.
Compassion fatigue may also cause changes in cognitive function, affecting people’s ability to think clearly, make decisions and use good judgment, research shows.
Feeling fatigued or burned out
When you are repeatedly exposed to trauma and are chronically in a fight-or-flight state, it’s typical to experience intense exhaustion and fatigue, Stern said. In the beginning, compassion fatigue can feel like a roller coaster, with dips of intense stress and depletion.
But over time, depletion will take over and set in. “With time, you’re going to find that the ‘on moments’ are going to become diluted more and more and more, where you’re just going to feel the low end of that, which is exhaustion and fatigue,” Stern said.
This is more common in people who feel like they lack agency over what’s occurring in their life. “The more that they feel that they don’t have a way to fix the problem and that there’s just a problem that’s unresolvable, it’s more likely for them to start to feel fatigued by it because they don’t feel like there’s a way to make change that they have control of,” Fisher said.
Becoming disengaged from things that once mattered
Compassion fatigue can cause people to avoid situations that may normally cause them to feel stress or even compassion, according to Fisher.
Because they have already met their limit of what they can handle emotionally, it can feel like a burden to put themselves in yet another situation that would bring on more stress. As a result, people may become disconnected from their social networks and lose touch with the activities that previously brought them joy.
Feeling desensitized or complacent
Over time, this disengagement can turn into complacency. People can become desensitized to negative events and lose the ability to feel empathetic or sympathetic. They may develop a more muted response to stressors because they’re so burned out from their ability to engage, Fisher said. Eventually they may completely shut down emotionally.
“What we worry about sometimes is people become so complacent that they walk away from dealing with problems in general,” Fisher said.
Here’s how to cope with compassion fatigue
Stern recommends first identifying where you feel depleted — whether that’s at work, at home, in your social life or with sleeping and eating. Notice what in your life might be contributing to your fatigue. Focus on the small things that you can control, Stern says. Start there and see if that helps, then begin to make bigger changes.
Although it’s important to be aware of what’s happening in the world, overexposure can be more harmful than helpful. In some cases, it can create the reverse result, and people may become inactive or disengaged with the problem, according to Fisher. “Limiting how much we are exposed to to make it functional for the goal is important,” Fisher said.
Self-care is also crucial and can include things like reaching out to your support system, exercising, resting and taking care of your physical health. All of that can help you cope with the stress of life events.
Fisher recommends approaching your recovery as you would a big lifestyle change. “They need to maintain a certain level of well-being and a certain level of self-insight into their emotional health to know how much they can take on, or not, and know when it’s safe to take on more,” Fisher said.
If you are able to make substantial changes and adjust the factors that have been contributing to your compassion fatigue, you will likely be able to recover quicker, Stern added.
It takes time to recover from compassion fatigue — a couple of weeks if not a couple of months, according to Stern. If you try these things and the fatigue persists or worsens, it’s worth talking to a therapist or psychiatrist who can assess whether you’re experience compassion fatigue or perhaps a more serious issue.