The new decade roared into existence earlier this month, with a news cycle dominated by the fear of another world war, an entire continent burning, and a whole host of problems inherited from last year. In a sad way, it has almost become a habit to anticipate bad news and atrocity every day as we consume the news and engage with the wider world.
Political instability, war, humanitarian crises, oppression, and climate change are all horrible realities that we, as the consumers of news, have to deal with. To make matters worse, it has also become overwhelmingly hard to watch the news on a daily basis, and even harder to find a reaction to it.
This numbness and inability to connect to all the tragedies of the world is an experience all too common. Clinically, it is called compassion fatigue and was often seen in professions that were consistently exposed to trauma and suffering, such as health professionals, first-aid responders, and caregivers. Today, in the world of a 24-hour news cycle and constant social media presence, everyday people are experiencing the symptoms of compassion fatigue.
So, what is compassion fatigue? The condition is 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.” Symptoms include emotional, physical, and behavioural changes such as numbness, hopelessness, feeling lost, exhaustion, increased anxiety, depression, loss of objectivity and more. Compassion fatigue, however, is not just caused by the constant exposure to traumatic or stressful situations, but rather our compassion to want to help those affected and our inability to solve the problem. Thus, compassion fatigue is, paradoxically, caused by our own compassion.
Now, although compassion fatigue is a new term, the worries around it and its effects have persisted for a long time and various strategies have been suggested to address the condition, from personalizing tragedy, to maintaining outrage, to taking breaks from the news and social media. Sometimes these strategies might work, but none of the strategies listed above are sustainably effective. Personalizing tragedies only works for certain types of tragedies, ones that are singular in nature. As Elisa Gabbert from The Guardian put it, “if we read up on the victims of every mass shooting, won’t the hundreds of details begin to blur together?” Several crises will feel like they’ve become one giant crisis that has countless victims, and as such will only deepen compassion fatigue. Outrage is also a short-term solution, since anger is often short-lived and demoralizing to maintain. Social media and news breaks are important for general mental health, but it is ineffective if the minute you log back on you are bombarded by the same horrific tragedies.
None of these strategies address the true issue with compassion fatigue: that our compassion and empathy are being spent on issues that we have little control or influence over, and thus we are draining ourselves over problems that we cannot make better.
This sad reality of compassion fatigue does sound harsh, and it could be easily used as an excuse to turn away from the world’s suffering. However, that is not at all the world that I am suggesting we create. No, I would still urge people to be informed of the tragedies and problems in the world, to engage and donate, and to raise awareness on important issues because there is a need for it.
Yet, as you engage with the ills of the world, remember that these big problems require even bigger solutions—often ones that are slow, difficult, and that need massive public will to succeed—and that while your small contribution is important, it will not have a ton of impact. That is why it is so important to prioritize and work on local issues, issues one can directly affect and solve.
Instead of striving to solve world hunger, try focusing on contributing and helping the UTM food bank. These local problems that we can directly impact and solve can leave us feeling more hopeful and capable of affecting change. Therefore, the true solution to compassion fatigue is being able to manage our compassion and redirect our energy into solving problems that we have the most impact on.
Compassion fatigue is a natural human self-preservation mechanism that serves to keep us from being driven to madness by the cruelty of the world. It is also a by-product of our own human limits and capacity. We are only afforded a finite amount of energy, so I implore everyone to use that energy in ways that can leave a lasting impact, for your own well-being and the world’s.