Overwhelmed by the world? It could be compassion fatigue
Protests, lockdowns, economic turmoil.
2020 sure has been a real bitch, with each month proving to be increasingly more turbulent than the last. Add the chaotic unrest triggered by the pandemic and this year has officially kicked into overdrive.
Unsurprisingly, the relentless barrage of brutal news blasted at our our eyeballs these days is negatively impacting our brains. A phenomenon known as compassion fatigue.
Hardwired to care
When you think about the evolution of human species, what comes to mind? Competition, individual struggle, survival of the fittest? Me too. Why is it then that people are so frequently good, generous and sacrificing? It seems a non sequitur to be caring and compassionate for others in our viciously competitive world – yet we are.
In his book ‘Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life’, social psychologist Dacher Keltner outlines why it’s not only the most ruthless and bloodthirsty that thrive and survive. Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California in Berkley, has built upon Charles Darwin’s work to show that higher order “ethical emotions” such as sympathy and awe are essential to human survival and to thrive. In his book, he proposes that survival of the fittest can in fact mean “survival of the kindest”. In fact, prosocial behaviour and teamwork has historically been proven to be the most effective human survival strategy.
According to Darwin’s theory of Human Evolution, sympathy is the strongest instinct that humans have. Darwin outlines that “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” For Darwin, compassion and kindness are essential to the survival of the human species. Not only that, but they are emotions that we are all biologically-wired to be sensitive to.
The neuroscience of empathy
Whether it’s watching a friend lose a loved one, or seeing a picture of a starving child in Yemen, the afflictions of others can create deep feelings of distress in us as observers too. Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam outlines how “when we witness what happens to others, we don’t just activate the visual cortex like we thought some decades ago. We also activate our own actions as if we’d be acting in similar ways. We activate our own emotions and sensations as if we felt the same.”
How crazy is this? Simply through the observation of pain and negative emotions in others, the same neural networks are triggered in ourselves. It’s as if we are sharing their experience. Through observation alone, we emotionally and physically react to the situation of complete strangers as if it were happening to us.
Everyone experiences this to different degrees of course, but you don’t have to be an extreme empath for this phenomenon to become burdensome over time. In fact, taking on the emotional pain of others can be as hurtful as if we were in physical pain. When people feel emotional pain, the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex fire up. These are the exact same areas of the brain that are activated in reaction to experiencing physical pain!
The Cost of Caring
Caring about any of the many issues that are plaguing our world today (plague pun intended) comes with a cost. Long term exposure to the issues and trauma of others can result in compassion fatigue.
According to Psychology Today, signs of compassion fatigue include physical fatigue, brain fog, increased nightmares, overeating, poor self-care, feeling burdened by the weight of the world, loss of pleasure in life and feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness.
This phenomenon is something that you should be particularly wary of in the current climate, and psychologist Charles Figley predicts that there will be a spike in compassion fatigue in the coming months, so keep an eye on yourself and your friends.
So, what can you do about it?
All is not lost. There are many simple actions you can take to cope with the horrible effects of compassion fatigue. Here are the top five solutions that worked for me.
1. Recognition & Forgiveness
As with most psychological phenomenons, simply becoming aware of compassion fatigue as a concept will already help. Biologically, anyone with a nervous system will react negatively when immersed in a global pressure pot of doom and gloom. So if you have a nervous system and are overwhelmed by current events, you are not crazy. Most certainly, you are not alone.
Remember that empathy is an invaluable trait and while it is incredibly beneficial to us overall, this is one of the scenarios where it can simply tear you apart. Compassion fatigue is the strain of feeling for the pain of another. Isn’t that more than understandable in this climate? Forgive yourself.
2. Limit the amount of daily news you consume
In my previous article on word psychology, I told you how the human brain is primed to act especially strongly to negative information – a psychological phenomenon known as the negativity bias. Strong reactions are the sweet nectar that fuels online engagement. So, shocking news is pushed out at a disproportionate rate compared to all the positive news happening everyday.
With social media influencers admitting that Instagram is bad for body image and mental health, and algorithms actively amplifying prejudices, we are all particularly susceptible to the subconscious damaging effects of our 24/7 news world. The cure? Cut it out as much as you can. Withdraw from the news and quit getting updates about case numbers, deaths, foreign news for a while. Delete all news apps, particularly if they come with intrusive notifications.
If you don’t want to feel like you’re missing vital information, do this. Schedule time once per day to check the news and skip it for the rest of the day. Alternatively, ask a friend, neighbor or colleague to keep you updated on local news that is relevant to you. Bonus: you also get to chat to someone else for a bit which will help!
3. Self Care
Sadly one of the first things to fall apart in times of stress and compassion fatigue are any kind of self care routines you may have for yourself. When your body is in fight-or-flight mode, it can be hard for your rational brain to convince your wired emotional brain that even though the world is burning, maybe you should just try a face mask.
We’re talking about the basics here. Regular showers, clean bedsheets, some light exercise, fruits and vegetables, clipping your nails. Whatever you’re doing now, just add something new to it. You don’t have to be the most amazing at self-care, or even as nice to yourself as your were in pre-pandemic times.
4. Routine, Routine, Routine
I haven’t worked in an office setting since 2018 and learned the hard way that without a solid personal routine to fall back on, things will go south pretty quickly. Without the constant threat of missing the train to work hanging over my head every morning, my routine quickly fell to shit. With zero prospect of post work drinks, I gradually began taking less care of my appearance. I would stay in my PJ’s until noon and not even brush my hair some days at all.
Remedy this with a simple routine. Mark Manson explains how routines should be basic and incorporate little habits that will set you up for continued success. The more rigid a plan is, the harder it is to adhere to and the more likely you are to throw the whole routine out the window. Start by simply scheduling your wake-up time, work hours, self-care hours and bed-time and stick to them as best you can. Write it somewhere prominent as a reminder throughout the day.
Another thing to remember is to anticipate reasons why you wouldn’t stick to the routine and be proactive about it. Will you be distracted by YouTube when you open your laptop in the morning? Then leave everything you need to work on the next day open on your laptop the night before. Or if you are trying to get in some exercise in the morning, leave your workout clothes on a chair before you go to bed. It’s far more likely that you’ll make it when the little reasons not to do something are taken away.
5. Reach out to an old friend or a family member
I’ll be honest, if I’m feeling terrible, this is usually the last thing that I ever want to do. So, I often don’t do it.
Then it ends up becoming this kind of monster where it has been months that I haven’t talked to this person, and the wall of resistance to reach out grows larger with each passing week. To combat this, if I hadn’t talked to another person that day, by the evening I would implement a thing called ‘daily brave five seconds’. Creative, I know.
This is where once per day I would decide to be brave for literally FIVE seconds – the amount of time it takes to find a number and call someone. If they don’t answer then OK, I’ve tried. If they do, often they’re just as happy to catch up and have some human connection. Both parties will feel better afterward, and with a literal pandemic outside there really is no excuse not to make a little extra effort to keep in touch.
Do you have any tips that you can share with me? Comment below or send me a message through the contact form. Most importantly, take care of yourselves!