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COVID And Mental Health: What Is Compassion Fatigue?

It’s hard to look at a screen without being exposed to news about the rapid global spread of COVID-19. The pandemic has caused a drastic restructuring of everyone’s lives, and tensions are running high. To make matters worse, many countries have implemented lockdown measures that prevent their people from going out and doing the things that would normally keep them optimistic and, well, sane. One could hardly be blamed for growing tired of being bombarded with skyrocketing mortality numbers, and details about the dents to global economies. Avoiding the news, seeking solace in conspiracy theories, and diving too enthusiastically into your lockdown wine stash, however, could all be signs that you have another problem on your hands: compassion fatigue.

Source: Yuris Alhumaydy on Unsplash

What is compassion fatigue?

Also referred to as empathy fatigue, this condition is nothing new. In fact, compassion fatigue is as old as compassion itself. It’s commonly been experienced by healthcare workers who are frequently exposed to pain and suffering.

In this article by The Guardian, compassion fatigue as 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”.

In recent times, with tragedy and suffering being broadcast online and on TV in real time, it’s become normal for your average Joe to experience the same thing. Now, with this pandemic on our hands, becoming numb to the numbers is a condition that many of us are slowly starting to face.

We watched with horror as the situation worsened in China, then Europe, and now in the US. But as the numbers rose, we grew tired of watching them climb, and climb, and climb some more. Even now, the curve isn’t flattening at the rate experts would like, and while we mourn our three week lockdown, some sources claim strict measures to curb the spread of the virus would need to be implemented for up to 18 months. After this barrage of bad news, our shock turns slowly to apathy. In the words of Roxanne Gay, “It is damn hard to expand the limits of our empathy when our emotional attention is already stretched too thin.”

Sherrie Bourg Carter at Psychology Today lists the following as a few of the symptoms of compassion fatigue:

  • isolating yourself (emotionally and mentally, in this case, since we’re all physically isolating right now)
  • loss of pleasure in life
  • insomnia
  • physical and mental fatigue
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • overeating
  • excessive use of drugs or alcohol
  • poor self-care
  • denial

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (CFAP), denial is one of the most detrimental of these symptoms, because “it can easily hinder your ability to assess the level of fatigue and stress in your life as well as thwart your efforts to begin the healing process”.

Source: Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

What can you do about it?

Carter writes that fortunately, like burnout and other stress-related conditions, compassion fatigue definitely impacts the quality of your life, but it can be managed and “awareness is the first step to recovery”.

Some measures you could implement to do so include acceptance of where you are on your path in life, enhancing awareness with education, and taking positive action to change your environment or your mood. You could limit the amount of daily news you watch every day (without burying your head in the sand and ignoring it altogether), and find other interesting topics to discuss with friends and family. Verbally express your needs to those around you and set clear and strong boundaries (read our article about this here). If you feel uncomfortable discussing the situation in Italy, it’s OK to request a break from it for a little while. Be grateful for what’s good in the world, and try to find some meaning in the suffering (although this, perhaps, is the hardest part when it comes to a virus that selects its victims indiscriminately).

According to the CFAP, one silver lining in being locked down or in quarantine is that now many of us have something we had little of before: time.

“Too often the excuse for devising our personal self-care plan is a lack of time,” they write. “That is no longer the case”. Use your time to take care of yourself by staying mindful of the six pillars of wellness: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, occupational and social. You can read more about how to address each of these pillars individually on the CFAP site. Work on your relationships with those around you, and those you can’t see at the moment. We do have ample video communication tools at our disposal after all. Express your feelings and challenges to people who will understand and validate them.

Finally, GoodTherapy.org recommends exercise, meditation and journalling in order to come to grips with your feelings, and restore a sense of peace within yourself, even if this can’t be done on a global scale just yet. (both practices have been advocated on this site before, and you can check out our 20 reasons to meditate here.)

Things are definitely looking bleak right now, and it’s never been easier to wallow in self-pity and try to avoid the rest of the world, seeing only the new challenges we face individually or a global community. As we watch the number of infections and deaths climb, they go from being shocking, to being nothing more than just that: numbers. But now more than ever we need to exercise empathy. Compassion and the kindness it brings are necessary if we want to work together to not only get through this pandemic, but to make the world a better place in general. That sounds cheesy as hell, but it’s the truth.

Carter quotes the Mayo Clinic’s doctor Amit Sood: “we live in a world that desperately needs more compassion. So, the last thing we need is for those who are most adept at giving and showing compassion is to lose that gift to something completely avoidable. By being aware of the warning signs of compassion fatigue, you can prevent it and continue to do what you do best—change lives for the better with one act of kindness at a time.”

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