These are extraordinary times. People across the world are under immense pressure because of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that has killed thousands and left millions ill, unemployed, and hungry. 

In the face of this crisis, communities have come together to help in an unprecedented show of kindness. They have set up community kitchens for the hungry, raised funds for the poor, and provided medicines for the sick. 

But as people open their hearts, mental health experts warn that constant exposure to pain, misery, and suffering could take a toll on their physical and psychological well-being. They say people are at a collective risk of experiencing a phenomenon called “compassion fatigue”. Quite simply, it means being tired of caring.

Spotting the signs of compassion fatigue

Most people have heard of PTSD but compassion fatigue is relatively unknown. The term was first used by nurse Carla Joinson in 1992 to illustrate the adverse physiological effects felt by hospital nurses, doctors, and social workers due to their constant exposure to patient emergencies. 

Psychologist Charles Figley described the concept as the detrimental biological, psychological, and social effects that an individual experiences when caring for someone in pain or distress over a long time.

According to Figley, compassion fatigue can affect the general population due to prolonged exposure to the suffering of others. Anyone from a frontline worker to a parent working remotely while also homeschooling their children can experience compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue isn’t a disease but a set of symptoms. People may experience physical symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches, and muscle pain, as well as emotional symptoms such as irritability, restlessness, inability to focus and concentrate. 

Typically, people with high empathy are at risk of compassion fatigue. It’s a form of secondary traumatic stress that is more common among police and first responders and can decrease your ability to empathize. 

The chief of psychology at UVM Health Network’s Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, Aron Steward, adds that the never-ending cycle of heartbreaking news can drain our energy reserves, making us “feel done”.

Does this mean we stop feeling compassion toward our fellow beings and adopt an ‘each man for himself’ attitude? Not exactly. 

Michael Poulin, an expert on empathy at the University of Buffalo, acknowledges that it is possible to help those in need without taking on someone else’s burden on yourself. He suggests that by regularly practicing empathy, an individual may be putting himself/herself at more risk for developing stress-like symptoms. It is crucial to not fall prey to an “empathy overload” to avoid compassion fatigue and conserve your personal energy reserves.  

How to prevent compassion fatigue

Here are some ways to ensure you don’t fall victim to compassion fatigue during these testing times:

  1. Perform Acts of Self-Care

While self-care had become synonymous with bubble baths, extravagant purchases, and even routinely bingeing on chocolates, there is more to the concept than popular media had let on. Self-care is a form of discipline that requires you to take a step back and evaluate your priorities. If WFH has greatly increased your workload, speak with your manager to find an arrangement that suits both you and the organization. Even taking out 15 minutes for yourself in the morning to meditate is an act of self-care that can boost your mood, make you a better parent, a productive employee, and a happier person. 

  1. Set Emotional Boundaries

People should set emotional boundaries to protect themselves from compassion fatigue. The key is to be compassionate and empathetic without taking on another’s pain. This helps maintain a connection while retaining your own needs. Remind yourself that you are a separate person with your own emotional needs that require attention too. Take short breaks during the day to restore balance in your life. 

  1. Practice Self-Compassion

Remind yourself that this period is not a contest to assess who is donating the biggest amount to charities, enrolling in the highest number of certificate courses or is up to date with all the latest developments in the world. It is important to do only what is within one’s limits and present circumstances. Be kind to yourself during this difficult period. Remember that this isn’t a race or competition you need to win. 

  1. Focus On Your Overall Well-Being 

Lastly and most importantly, look inwards and allow yourself to feel what you are feeling. Open up to other people and lean on them for support, connect (virtually) with your family and friends, chalk out some time to exercise, eat as healthily as possible and take extremely good care of your mental health. Keep working towards strengthening your connection with yourself because we are in this for the long haul. 

Patricia Smith, the founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (CFAP), says this is this time to take things slow and indulge in more naps because we will need all our energies when the time comes to rebuild our world. 

“We are all experiencing new territory in our lives,” American news website The Hill quoted Patricia Smith writing for CFAP. “If we suffer from high levels of compassion fatigue, this crisis holds the power to disrupt our well-being even further. If our energy is low, that’s understandable. Take things a little slower. Rest. Nap even more. It is imperative that we work now to sustain our energies for the time when we will need to rebuild. Believe me, that time will come.”

Smith adds, “And don’t forget, you are not alone. We are all in this together.”

Akanksha Singh is an Associate Specialist in the Curriculum team at Harappa Education. A postgraduate in Social Cognition, Akanksha spends her free time binge-watching animated movies and telling people that she can’t read their minds. 

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