Opinion: Practice self-care to combat compassion fatigue

Amy Wang, Web Editor

2020 has been a year of overload. In the U.S., the feeding frenzy that comes with every presidential election has already begun, a pandemic has locked us all indoors, and in California we are in the midst of a fire season that has already been the most devastating in terms of acres burned. 

It has been, in one word, overwhelming. To make matters worse, instant news means instant impact, and given our ability to watch things unfold in real time, the speed can sometimes feel like a punch to the gut. Stuck at home with only our screens as an outlet to the outside world, this devastation has only been magnified. On social media, our feeds are filled with wave after wave of sensational material, shared by friends or followers. As different societal problems beg for our attention, after a celebrity dies and a city explodes, we are left with little time to process.

I’ve had that experience myself. After everything that has happened this year, it was a recent event that really swept me under. When the wildfires first began at the beginning of this month, as my Twitter feed turned into orange skies and raging fires, it felt almost surreal. It wasn’t my home that was burning, it wasn’t my entire life going up in flames, but somehow as I scrolled and scrolled through pictures of ravaged hillsides and Blade-Runner-like metropolises, I felt sick to my stomach. I felt hopeless and angry and unspeakably bleak. I wanted to change things. I wanted to push for environmental reform, so that the global warming that led to the fires in the first place wouldn’t get worse and devastate even more. 

Yet by the time I’d turned off my phone, a feeling of futility had settled over me like a weighted blanket. As with so many of the other things that have happened this year, I realized that there was little I could do from my bedroom desk. 

As we’re exposed to a constant revolving door of disasters, this feeling of hopelessness is common, according to researcher Patricia Smith.

“Compassion fatigue is a broadly defined concept that can include emotional, physical and spiritual distress in [people] surrounded by suffering,” Smith said. “It is associated with caregiving where people or animals are experiencing significant emotional or physical pain and suffering.”

Compassion fatigue, also known as empathy burnout, is a relatively new concept. The effects, however, are not. 

“We know living through trauma as a young person has a profound effect now and in later years,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, one outcome of being exposed to high-impact events is long-term damage to mental peace and societal involvement.”

As the number of causes that need our attention, our care, our empathy grows, so does the risk of compassion fatigue. Whether it is the BLM movement, worry for the environment, or perhaps the current political jungle that is spreading its leafy branches across every part of America, so many of the things happening this year affect broad groups of people. 

To be completely clear, compassion is not a bad thing. To be able to feel empathy and pity for the misfortunes of others is one of the traits that makes us human. Even though we might simply be standing on the sidelines, even though that hurricane, that flood, that wildfire that devastated a neighborhood three hours north might not have hit us, due to our ability to empathize, we are more inclined to help those in need. 

In times of disaster, the compassion within us is what spurs us to action and understanding, and our ability to empathize with experiences we might not have experienced ourselves is a key to finding solutions, to gathering together and forcing a way out. That has held true, especially, in the past nine months. As can be seen from the BLM movement, America’s ability—especially in young people—to empathize is strong. Yet with all this comes the difficulty of maintaining our own ability to stay afloat, and according to Smith, oftentimes compassion fatigue moves more quickly than we notice.

“Symptoms in young people include feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, exhaustion, physical ailments,” Smith said. “Substance abuse, recurring nightmares, flashbacks, emotional numbness, hyperarousal (always on high alert), and isolation [are also common].”

According to Smith, if you find yourself getting burnt out from everything that you’ve poured yourself thin over, remember that you are just one person, with a life and problems of your own to deal with. Focusing your attention and care on the issues and events that you are truly emotionally invested in, rather than getting swept up in the gristmill of our nation’s political and societal grinder, can keep you from feeling worse, long-term. 

According to Smith, taking a few steps back from the situation at hand after that initial realization of fatigue is important. Even if you do experience compassion fatigue, however, it isn’t the end of the world. While that initial dread might pull you down like an anchor, in the end, jumping back in isn’t impossible. 

“Self-care is the number one way to combat compassion fatigue,” Smith said. “Eat nutritious food, rest well, exercise, create a highly functional support system, limit social media and TV viewing. As difficult as it might be, create a balanced life. Make time for your school work and activities, your family and friends, and time alone to make decisions and become more self-aware.”

In the end, realizing that there are things you can do, no matter how futile a situation may appear, is important, as is making sure that you really understand what is going on. While compassion fatigue might make you close your eyes for a while, once you open them again, it’s possible to keep the ways you can help in sight. It is always possible to get up and keep going, and in times such as these, that’s one of the things we should keep in mind.