How to Keep Our Compassion When It Is Needed the Most
How the information age is clouding our senses and how to get them back.
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The images and stories from the news can be overwhelming. Furthermore, the effects of market volatility, violence seemingly in every corner of our world, and an increasingly polarized society are enough to overwhelm us all. Overwhelmed by the constant images and discussions of suffering and upheaval, leading to compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion from repeated exposure to some element of human need or suffering. Sometimes referred to as the negative cost of care, the term is usually associated with first responders, therapists, and medical workers who are in regular contact with people during exceptionally difficult times. In many cases, the quality of compassion that attracts a professional to a helping career can erode, particularly when they are unable to take care of themselves both physically and emotionally. After witnessing human suffering for such a long period of time, people can become basically deaf. It’s a natural defense against such exposure.
News outlets, from 24-hour cable news stations to online media sources, compete for the attention of their audiences. In this fight they push the limit to be more graphic. It is no longer sufficient to discuss human suffering in language. Instead, we watch video footage of the wreck and may even watch rescue workers pull bodies out of the rubble. We see vivid videos of the impact of violence in Ukraine, see the faces of the victims and the grief of the families. In most cases, these videos, whether local crime thrillers or stories from far away, show people in the most difficult moment of their whole life. Given the ease of video transmission, we’re essentially with those most affected. In some cases we are no longer spectators. We are witnesses.
More than half of Americans surveyed by the American Psychological Association said the news causes them stress. The repeated images of human and natural tragedy can cause as much stress over television or social media as if you were actually there yourself. In a 2014 survey, researchers at UC Irvine found that people who repeatedly saw videos of the Boston Marathon bombing on the news experienced more stress than those who were there when it happened!
Watching this human suffering for hours on end on cable news and social media can leave us, as viewers, feeling pitiful fatigue. Like the emergency responder who experiences multiple episodes of human suffering each week, we viewers are swept up in one catastrophe after another. Our amygdala, the part of our brain that detects potential threats and helps us respond to them, is too often referred to as breaking news. It can make us not only less compassionate about the next news story that’s about to get its 15 minutes of fame, or worse, less compassionate about those closest to us when the suffering is in our household, our family or our neighborhood.
The best way to combat compassion fatigue is to take action. A family could commit to supporting one natural disaster relief effort per year, hosting bake sales, clothing drives, and perhaps volunteering at emergency shelters. It could be finding a charity to support the millions of people fleeing Ukraine, or letting your local representative hear your voice on a range of issues. We don’t have to feel that we should support everyone or everything, or even feel that we should be compassionate about every single message we come in contact with.
However, if we find a cause we love most and can do something about it, we can avoid elements of compassion fatigue and feel like we are making the world a better place. We can feel empowered to do something for others in real and tangible ways. Experiencing anxiety and worry while sitting passively on the couch isn’t going to help anyone. We can channel our compassion to make a real impact.
However, not unlike the causes and people we love most, our compassion requires care and nurturing to have the greatest impact. Getting away from the screen for a while and acting is the best solution to avoid becoming deaf to a seemingly volatile and sometimes frightening world. Like love, compassion should be seen as a verb and not a noun.
American Psychological Association. (2020, May). Stress in Times of COVID-19, Volume One. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report
Holman EA, Garfin DR, Silver RC. The role of the media in spreading acute stress after the Boston Marathon bombings. Proc Natl Acad Sci US A. 2014 Jan 7;111(1):93-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1316265110. Epub December 9, 2013. PMID: 24324161; PMC ID: PMC3890785.