In December 2019, the world began to live a new, terrifying and challenging experience: the COVID-19 pandemic. As the coronavirus spread rapidly and relentlessly, infecting and killing, the sense of solidarity, charity and need for the other that arises with the emergency also grew.
In almost two years, reality has once again shown that it can be overwhelming. And it can also drain interest and empathy for good causes. If you feel this, you haven’t turned into a bad person overnight: you may simply be experiencing a psychological phenomenon known as compassion fatigue.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines compassion fatigue as emotional and physical exhaustion that leads to a person feeling less empathy or compassion for others. It’s also called secondary traumatic stress, or the negative cost of caring for the other.
It can be the result not only of extreme stress, but of repetitive stress, which becomes part of everyday life, usually through work or volunteering.
Compassion fatigue can occur in anyone, but is most common in those who care for others, from family caregivers and assisted living home staff to healthcare professionals. In people who are faced daily, as during the COVID-19 pandemic, with extreme emotional situations, who flirt with life or death.
Everyone is exposed: part-time volunteers or full-time employees in charitable organizations. It is the closeness to the painful reality, before which we must put a good face, and hard and constant work.
In fact, it is a democratic condition, it can appear in people of all races, ages and creeds.
The common denominator is perhaps working with the care and attention of the other, whether in a food bank, in the infirmary or in an intensive care unit.
According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, the signs of compassion fatigue can be similar to other conditions, and include:
- Feeling burdened by the suffering of others
- Deny that suffering, and even coutrage others for their suffering
- Losing pleasure in the little things
- Feeling that you work more, but you achieve less
- Feeling irritable more easily
- Difficult to focus
- Insomnia and nightmares
- Physical and mental fatigue
- Repressing emotions
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Complain more often about work and life
- Eat excessively
- Excessive use of drugs or alcohol
- Disregard personal care
If this state persists, it can affect daily and professional life, the person begins to receive complaints from their loved ones and from their bosses in the workplace.
The same source adds that denial is one of the most damaging symptoms “because it prevents those who are experiencing compassion fatigue from accurately assessing how fatigued and stressed they really are, preventing them from seeking help.”
The COVID-19 crisis is still relatively new, but compassion fatigue is not. It has already been observed and studied in people who work with victims of torture, terrorism, massive events such as wars or more intimate events such as domestic violence.
In an APA article, Nora Phillips, attorney and legal director of the nonprofit Al Otro Lado, recounted her experience with compassion fatigue. in 2019, before the pandemic, when the crisis of immigrants arriving by caravan at the US-Mexico border made headlines.
Phillips had been working with migrants at the border since 2011, and, as he puts it, “it was never easy.” But the extreme policies that went into effect in 2017 left lawyers with no room to help people. Suddenly, legal tools that previously made it easier for migrants to seek asylum, or apply for DACA (the law for immigrants brought to the United States as children) were fading. Phillips was overwhelmed.
“I always refer to myself as a repository of sadness,” she says in the APA article. But he began to have symptoms of compassion fatigue, and with it, guilt. Especially that feeling of feeling that your own problem is much less than that of the person you are trying to help.
For her, the remedy for her condition was peer support, more colleagues working the impossible cases. A safety net that looked like it was losing.
The American Institute of Stress explains the timeline of compassion fatigue as a process of accumulation that can last for months or years, as the emotional residue that builds up with the stress of exposure to work with victims of traumatic events.
Comparing it to exhaustion, he makes a clear difference: once it manifests itself, compassion fatigue has a faster onset, while exhaustion emerges over time. Compassion fatigue has a faster recovery (less severe, if recognized and managed early).
Dr. Frank Ochberg, author of the book When Helping Hurts (When Helping Hurts) Explain that compassion fatigue “eats up your energy.” “Your ability to feel and care for others is eroded due to overuse of your compassion skills. You can also experience a kind of emotional dullness, in which you react to situations differently than you would normally expect ”.
Compassion fatigue tends to occur more frequently in people who are in contact with others in distress, but it also arises in more solitary fields, such as scientific laboratory research.
The University of Washington offers a practical checklist of dos and don’ts to deal with compassion fatigue in this field (when, for example with a pandemic such as COVID, there is global pressure to seek solutions to remedy it). Although focused, these tips are applicable to anyone with symptoms of this special fatigue.
What to do
- Find someone to talk to
- Understand that what you feel is normal
- Exercise and eat properly
- Take some time off
- Developing interests (or not losing interests) outside the urgency of the investigation
What not to do
- Blaming others
- Develop the habit of complaining
- Change jobs or tasks
- Work harder and harder
- Deny your own needs and interests
As stated by the Awareness Project on this condition, “Accepting the presence of compassion fatigue in our lives only serves to validate the fact that we are people who care deeply. Somewhere on our healing path, the truth will present itself: we don’t have a decision to make. It is possible to practice healthy and continuous self-care while successfully caring for others. ”