The American Institute of Stress defines compassion fatigue as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.” Also known as secondary traumatic stress, second-hand shock, and vicarious trauma, the term, coined by writer Carla Joinson, is reserved for professional healthcare providers such as doctors, nurses, and other front-line care workers, as well as their families. However, nearly 30 years after its conception and amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, compassion fatigue could undoubtedly impact non-traditional caretakers like volunteers, activists and organizers, teachers, grocery workers, and journalists, to name a few—especially with the non-stop news and charitable asks disseminated across social media platforms.
“When we talk about compassion fatigue, in the field [of psychology], we really talk about it in the context of when someone is directly caring for someone,” says licensed clinical psychologist Tasha Brown, PhD. “So you have a sick relative, you are a primary caregiver for someone who needs a lot of help, or you were exposed to a job where you are constantly working with people who need help. But because of social media, because of the times that we live in, the definition and the way we think of compassion fatigue has expanded.”
For L. Malik Anderson, COVID-19, or novel coronavirus, is dominating his social media feeds and mind. The Madison, Wisconsin-based producer and reporter easily spends six hours a day on social media, particularly Twitter, researching and keeping a pulse on breaking news. The outbreak has put his work schedule in overdrive.
“I am completely consumed by what’s going on right now,” says Anderson, who works an 80-hour work week. “I would say I’m always consumed by what’s going on around me—that’s kind of the nature of working in the news. But when something like this happens, it’s like you go to bed, or you close your eyes, and all of a sudden you’re thinking about work. You constantly think about, ‘Okay, what is it that I need to do right now? What is it that people need to know?”
It’s often referred to as the negative cost of caring, and can leave you feeling numb or with a diminished feeling to empathize with others, because you have been doing so constantly.
According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, common symptoms for CF include difficulty sleeping, compulsive behaviors (excessive drinking or smoking, sexual additions, etc.), headaches, intestinal issues, isolation, irritability, sadness, and mental and physical exhaustion. It’s often referred to as the negative cost of caring, and can leave you feeling numb or with a diminished feeling to empathize with others, because you have been doing so constantly. While compassion fatigue shares similarities with anxiety and other forms of stress like burnout (including extreme physical and emotional exhaustion), its quick onset and fast recovery time, if detected and managed early, are key differences.
Patricia Smith, founder of the CFAP and certified compassion fatigue specialist, views the effects in a holistic manner, noting compassion fatigue impacts the body, mind, and spirit equally. “People who care for others are empathetic and they’re compassionate. If you have empathy, it makes you open your heart to the pain and suffering of others. If you’re compassionate, upon seeing the pain and suffering, you’re moved to act and that’s where it intersects with compassion fatigue,” says Smith. “Once you put yourself in harm’s way, if you’re not taking care of yourself properly and you don’t have personal boundaries—and feel you can never do enough and you’re responsible—that’s when the compassion fatigue takes hold.”
Barbara Friend, a television writer, has felt a sense of uneasiness since the novel coronavirus was first detected in the U.S. (She’s almost certain she learned of its arrival on Twitter.) Right before California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order, Friend donated blood and, as supporter of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, made plans to execute on several helpful ideas included in their newsletter. Still, the Burbank, California resident felt she could be doing more. “When things are happening, I don’t like just sitting around,” she says. “As a person who has means and is healthy, I feel like I’m not doing enough.”
“Once you put yourself in harm’s way, if you’re not taking care of yourself properly and you don’t have personal boundaries—and feel you can never do enough and you’re responsible—that’s when the compassion fatigue takes hold.” — Patricia Smith, founder of the CFAP and certified compassion fatigue specialist
While the desire to do more is valid, it can also be a sign of other-directedness, a common cause of compassion fatigue and what Smith describes as “putting the needs of others before the needs of ourselves.”
“The journey to wellness is basically coming from other-directed to self-directed,” she adds. “People who are well and healthy have low, low levels of compassion fatigue. Self-directed people take care of themselves first because they know that if they don’t care for themselves, they have nothing healthy to give others.”
In addition to a holistic-first approach to managing compassion fatigue, Dr. Brown highlights the importance of creating normalcy amidst what feels like a very abnormal time. As many people navigate working from home for the first time; children and teachers working through the challenges of distance learning; as well as constant Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter feed updates, she advises to “think about your schedule and try to stay as close to your schedule as possible, thinking about what’s abnormal for you and using those as indicators.”
Dr. Brown, Smith, and licensed master social worker and therapist Josie Rosario agree that boundaries, especially when it comes to consuming information, must be established. It’s an act of self-care, or as Rosario calls it, “practices that keep you whole.”
“Consuming all that information can chip away your wholeness,” the New York City-based Rosario shares. “You’re consuming really heavy, sad, traumatic information—how can that not do something to you physically and emotionally? It’s about thinking about what are the practices that are going to keep you whole; whether that’s making sure you’re eating nutritious foods, whether that’s making sure you’re moving…just building that self-awareness around what you need to feel good.”
As novel coronavirus continues its spread, an increasing number of helpers, medical professionals, and unconventional caretakers alike, are showing up to provide support for those in need, which can result in an uptick in those dealing with compassion fatigue. With information at your fingertips 24/7, 365, as health officials encourage individuals to arm themselves with accurate information before self-diagnosing COVID-19, the same can be said about mental health conditions.
“It’s important people don’t start to attribute what they’re experiencing to other things,” says Dr. Brown. “I want people to be able to recognize that this is a really stressful and an anxiety-provoking situation for most people, and sit with what that means for them; so then they can do what they need to do in order to cope in a way that’s going to be most beneficial.”
Can’t talk about COVID-19 anymore? Here are ways to change the conversation. Plus, some digital support groups that can help with COVID-19-related challenges.
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