Facing compassion fatigue: Is there such a thing as too much bad news?
As 2019 came to a close, I set aside some time for introspection and thought of everything I had been through in the last year. There were some lows and unprecedented highs. The year may have peaked and troughed like a sine curve, but I knew I could move into the next decade happy with everything that had transpired in 2019. Soon, however, I came across an article reviewing the major global news stories of 2019, which refreshed memories I had hoped to flush out of my mind.
The article reminded me of the political protests in India and Hong Kong, the wildfires in Australia, the mosque attacks in Christchurch, mass shootings in America — the list could go on. Reading through the first few picture captions turned my enthusiasm and optimism into despair and disappointment, but by the end of the article, my feelings had evaporated and all that was left behind was indifference towards the future of the world. It was an all too familiar feeling, the main reason I had hoped to forget the events in the first place.
This rapid descent from energy to indifference was quite surprising to me when I first experienced it, but upon further inspection online, I realized I had experienced symptoms of a phenomenon that has become pervasive in recent times — compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue has been defined by psychologist Charles Figley as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress." With the rise of the internet and ease of accessibility, the likelihood of graphic images and news stories related to destruction, hate and violence reaching us — almost constantly — is very high. Much like being exposed to radiation, constant exposure to upsetting news stories can result in us developing some horrific side effects.
Besides the feeling of indifference towards the various causes and the future, people can also experience a sense of irritability, difficulty sleeping, poor job satisfaction and even weight loss. Compassion fatigue clearly affects many dimensions of our well-being and could even push people towards depression.
Compassion fatigue originates from the instinct of wanting to help those who need help. When we constantly take in stories of people who could use our help, we find ourselves feeling helpless. We find ourselves in a position where we feel obligated to care about everything we see or hear, but this only results in us experiencing the onset of compassion fatigue.
With the politicization of mass media, this phenomenon cannot be expected to diminish anytime soon. Media channels on opposite ends of the political spectrum focus on stories (both global and national) and perspectives that best suit their political leaning. The platform offered by mass media often acts as a battleground for ideological opposites, as the stories reported are often like skirmishes meant to further the overarching war between logic and morality that plagues politics. This constant exchange of blows to try and win the war of ideals results in inaction from people who can actually make a difference, the effects of which can be felt by the regular people in their everyday lives.
The persistent battling is one of the key reasons for the rise in sensationalized reports of tragic events making their way to regular people, as tragedies almost act as firearms in conflict for political adversaries. Unable to handle the bombardment of such news beyond a certain threshold (which varies from person to person), people fall prey to compassion fatigue and start losing themselves. The consistent stream of politicized tragedies can result in more and more people turning apolitical, thus foregoing the strongest means of action that any regular person can take — voting and expression.
So this begs the question — what can we do about this?
The very first thing we must do is recognize that it is okay to feel indifferent to issues when we are bombarded by them, often in the form of sensationalized reporting. After all, compassion fatigue was first noted in professional caregivers like nurses and doctors, who began feeling the effects of constantly having to treat patients and giving them care. It is only natural that when we are asphyxiated by stories from news sources on all ends of the political spectrum, we feel the same way because the stories call for our compassion.
It is massively important to give ourselves the care we need. Self-care and mental health should be paramount. The symptoms that are associated with compassion fatigue can be dangerous, but only if not treated right. Therefore, seeking professional help, and taking our own steps to protect our headspace is essential.
While the above measures help in handling the onset of compassion fatigue, more can be done to try and combat the rise of this phenomenon. We must start off by prioritizing — we cannot possibly care about each and every story reported in the news. We must be cognizant of the politicization of the news we see and focus on issues that truly matter to us. Not only will that help us avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed by what we see, it will also help us stay true to our own set of ideals and principles and not lose our way and become apolitical.
Becoming aware of the battles taking place and protecting ourselves from it all will ensure that we can utilize the arsenal of weapons at the regular person’s disposal — the right to vote and the right to expression. By doing so, we are able to effect real change and challenge the people in power, who would otherwise continue battling over ideologies rather than agreeing upon solutions to problems.
As long as we do not become numb to the suffering around us, we can live our own lives to the fullest, whilst being in the right headspace to make use of the tools available to us, and effect meaningful change on issues that truly matter to us.
Anupras is a freshman studying Computer Science. Do you feel as though compassion fatigue is impacting our population? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter