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Darcey Joyce: Compassion Fatigue In and Out of Lockdown

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

What is it?

You may have seen the memes of the ‘2020 calendar’ which dedicates catastrophic events on a month by month basis, and what disaster this year has in store next - a meteor coming to hit us in August, locusts, frogs, and then take your pick of the ten plagues of Egypt. ‘I can't wait for the next season of Earth’ the captions read. It may feel to many like we’re watching a dystopian Netflix series: bush fires, a global pandemic, protests and killer hornets... whatever happened to them? Not to trivialize the magnitude of these occurrences and movements, the first half of 2020 has been surreal in many ways and brought a lot of conversations to the surface of popular media that were long overdue screen time. With this, and with the extra time experienced by those on furlough or otherwise at home, many have directed their time into educating themselves on, and sharing information or resources around the Black Lives Matter movement, human rights abuses (especially during Pride Month), the famine in the Yemen, and countless other issues that deserve and demand emphatic energy. Online activism is encompassing multiple platforms and is exposed to a larger audience in lockdown than before.

Compassion fatigue, an emotional and/or physical debilitation and apathy for others struggles, as a result of over exhaustion for caring for others, is sometimes called secondary traumatic stress. This can be characterised by feeling as if there's no point in caring, it's all too much to care for others, on top of oneself, an anxiety around facing other’s trauma as if it were our own or just an exhaustion from activism burnout. Symptoms can range from focus-loss to retraction from work, lack of sleep and feelings of futility. Care and aid workers may experience taking on others stress/trauma secondarily in this way, but in lockdown, where huge amounts of social media activism goes on online, it's also important to look into what strains and stress this exerts on individuals. Solutions to these mega-issues aren't quick fixes so the psychological tax the individual may experience when attempting to take on the weight of the world's problems on their shoulders can be enormous. Yet the acceptance of the individual being relatively powerless on its own, can further feelings of apathy towards issues that need engagement, so a nihilistic stance falls short also.

The saturation of ouvert suffering perceivable in advertising, newspapers, even the commercialisation of disaster through film, video games and other media can arguably create a desensitisation to others’ pain – perhaps a compartmentalisation even of the secondary horrors – that one may be fortunate to only observe at a distance as ‘other’ to their daily business; a privilege in itself.

Who suffers really?

Anyone can suffer compassion fatigue; here, however, it is extended to encompass the burnout experienced through online activism – fatigue caused by consistent streams of bad news and being an ear and eye to suffering second-hand. However, it is clear that those primarily impacted by the effects of compassion fatigue are the individuals, groups and movements that need support in the first place: the charities in need of funding, the petitions requiring final signatures, the silenced voices that demand to be listened to and supported. If activists or simply compassionate individuals, which most people (I would like to imagine) identify with, suffer burnout, fatigue from ‘too many horrible things going on in the world’, or secondary traumatic stress to the point of apathy and disengagement with issues that so desperately require consistent engagement – the movements and people who need the most, get the least from the people who are usually core engagers. Compassion fatigue is a lose-lose game for all concerned.

You may have experienced compassion fatigue as a phenomena in a small way in your daily life – if you've donated to a charitable campaign, for example, after a natural disaster, then a few days later you’re advertised another campaign urging you to donate to lessen suffering somewhere else in the world, it may feel easier to blanket ignore all donation campaigns from that point, rather than to take on the task of managing what suffering qualifies as awful enough to merit your emotional investment, time, understanding and finally money. These are, however, clearly privileged problems. To wrestle with the moral dilemma of extending empathetic energy towards a cause outside of one’s own life denotes privilege in the sense of not being directly negatively impacted by the suffering in question, whether natural, political, conflict-based or otherwise.

Is it heightened in lockdown? If so Why?

With more time spent indoors and often online during lockdown, our screens have been permeated with news surrounding Covid-19 – pile on top of this the fact that many people have unwell or immune-comprised family members in need of daily care and the emotional exhaustion mounts. OCD or anxiety may be kicking in for some and self-isolation may have kindled feelings of depression. Personal struggles, domestic tensions and financial issues attached to the lack of work; all contribute to the giant emotional weight of this pandemic. The act of extending our capacity for compassionate action outside of ourselves and our close circles, for some, is quite a taxing thought; hence, fatigue roots itself in our subconscious and quells our desire to help others. Aren’t we having a hard-enough time ourselves after all?

However, with the popularity of sites like Go-Fund-Me, Change.org and Care2, power is placed in the individual’s hands in a way easier than ever before. It's straightforward to set up petitions, easy to share email formats to push political figures to comment on issues, uncomplicated to directly fund families impacted by tragedy online. With this accessibility and ease, one of the biggest obstacles aside from financial to online activism is, therefore, the breakdown of our own empathetic energy.

So, how to prevent or lessen the effects of compassion fatigue...

This may be where the well-known notion of self-care appears. Acknowledging that although your personal fight might seem frivolous compared with the plethora of horrors and corruption existing in our world, like in an airplane, when in an emergency situation, parents are asked to attach their own oxygen mask first in case of emergency and then fix their child’s – we can do the best for others when we’re taking care of ourselves. Everyone's hardship is their own. Belittling our own struggles by comparison to external adversity leads only to guilt complexes and feeling as if we are undeserving of taking our own mental health seriously and seeking help for it. This is neither useful for our own wellbeing, nor provides any practical, positive outcomes for the causes we may compare our struggles to. Comparison is not only a waste of time but detrimental to our capabilities as potential engagers in activism.

Leisure activities, exercise, and meditative breathing practices have been cited in combating symptoms attributed to compassion fatigue and stress reduction in general. Creating an emotional distance while still reckoning with the emotional extremities of issues in some way is a difficult balance to find. Accepting that outcomes are often out of our individual power, but also recognising that this does not exempt us from collective and individual action, can help separate us from a mental dependency on positive outcomes. Self-reflection and self-assessing one's emotional state, potentially through a form of journaling or meditation as a method can be used to destress and recalibrate emotions.

Recognising also, that it may at times be better to, ‘give into’ compassion fatigue in the short term is also a positive step – this type of fatigue functions as a stress response utilised by the body to prevent major burnout and secondary traumatic stress, where engagement and proximity to issues results in an intensely negative mental state. In this case showing compassion to yourself is essential. This may simply look like a short-term social media/news ‘detox’. Temporary disengagement can help realign and configure actionable plans as well as detangle the cluster of polarised opinions forming background noise and undulating emotions that accompany advocacy. Of course, the opposite is possible too, complete disengagement may follow, phrases such as ‘I just fell out of love with politics/activism’ echo agreements in student groupings and beyond. Ignorance is bliss and, re-entering the world of empathy for others holds the possibility of guilt for leaving it in the first place. It may seem simply easier to just not care about anything external to one's own lifeworld, and in many ways it probably is; compassion fatigue is sometimes referred to as the ‘cost of caring’, but there's plenty of time for every ounce of idealism to drain from our bodies. For now, real people and issues need real support and engagement, and this can be done while avoiding burnout if carefully navigated. Investing volunteering time in local, hands-on efforts that present observable, practical results can decrease feelings of uselessness in the face of large-scale problems too overwhelming to face. Being able to witness positive outcomes from direct input is rewarding and becomes addictive rather than fatiguing.

Essentially, the take home message is to take care of yourself in order to extend that self-compassion to others – reflect, and seek local action in your community where small-scale results are observable. Meanwhile keep supporting causes where you can through signatures, donations, emails and more, and let's hope the plagues of Egypt spare the second half of 2020.


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