Pandemic got you numb? Therapists have a word for it: Compassion fatigue

There were too many things eating away at us last year. At the start of 2020, we were bombarded with skyrocketing cases of an illness that wouldn’t stop taking our loved ones away. Following that, the killing of George Floyd by police enraged the masses and sent them to the streets and city corners, where they were sometimes met with teargas. The election tore some friendships and families apart in comment sections and group chats.

It felt like we were living in the Apple computer pinwheel. And as the new year begins, the unknown shades of rage, worry, hurt and anxiety might have you feeling numb. 

It might help to know there is a term for this: compassion fatigue. Typically, it primarily affects first responders, emergency-department nurses, police officers, caregivers and others who experience frequent loss. However, experts say that the events of 2020 made compassion fatigue more common among all of us.  

“It’s similar to burnout,” said Patrick Norton, a therapist at Apollo Counseling in Birmingham, Ala. “It’s the idea that overexposure to things that are difficult to process minimizes our ability to respond to hard, traumatic experiences.” 

In short: It’s the slow erosion of one’s empathy, the ability to understand and respond to another person’s emotional state.

“We are all experiencing this trauma,” he said. “[Compassion fatigue] is expected right now.”

Charles Figley, a longtime researcher in the fields of psychology and traumatology, coined the term compassion fatigue in 1982. Figley’s experience serving combat medics in the Vietnam War and his subsequent research with veterans built the foundation for his later work studying the deterioration of caregivers’ empathy during seemingly endless loss. 

We may not have been through a war per se, but more people than usual have had to take on new roles as caregivers for friends, family and even their community. In an interview with Reckon, Figley, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, said he hadn’t seen compassion fatigue become this common since 9/11. “When you are listening to people talking about their problems day in and day out, you get a warped view,” he said. 

Figley, in partnership with the American Psychological Association, is studying the impacts of the pandemic on Americans’ mental state. Compassion fatigue has been front and center as he hears from caregivers.

“Time after time [caregivers] talk about how they have forgotten about themselves,” Figley said. “They are so consumed with the care of their patients. When they go home they take care of their families. They care for themselves last.”

This can impact those who play untraditional caregiver roles, like people working through COVID in their friend group or journalists reporting on protests and COVID numbers. 

Currently, he said, there is no degree of separation between caregivers or front-line workers and those they are helping or listening to on a day-to-day basis. On the job or during the workday many people hold on to their sadness and dread, he said. They are supposed to let that go when they get home, but many go home to unhealthy family members, stress from politics or financial issues. 

“There’s a notion of everyone feeling like they are in the same boat, but the boat is leaking,” he said. “We have to gain control.”

Compassion fatigue is reversible, Figley said, but working through those feelings takes time, therapy and self-awareness. That involves taking a much-needed break and walking away from situations until your mind and body are ready to go back to those challenging situations. 

Norton, a practicing therapist in Birmingham, said that the pandemic magnified Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, the top tier consisting of food, water and oxygen. The second tier includes safety and security.

“Whatever tier you are in, you can’t keep going until those needs are met,” he said. “Finding the greater good in what you do doesn’t matter if you don’t have food.” 

One of the greatest consequences of the pandemic, he said, is that people’s basic needs remain unmet while addressing the needs of others. 

These consequences, no matter the level of compassion fatigue they may feel, could grow through greater community isolation and division. Norton said that healing and growth start when you find people who have empathetic responses while also looking for ways to express gratitude. That makes isolation an enemy to regaining empathy, he said. 

“The biggest potential negative [of a society struggling with compassion fatigue] is the degree of division that already exists being emphasized,” Norton said. 

The Reckon Report.
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