If you’ve ever paid attention in science class at school, you’d know how adding salt continuously to a glass of water can make the water reach its saturation point, post which, any salt you add remains undissolved and settles at the bottom.
In case you’re wondering what this memory from childhood has got to do with the impact of negative/tragic news on your mental health, well you’ve first got to think of yourself as that glass of water and of the negative news as the salt.
Now, imagine how those initial doses of salt/news evokes worry, compassion, empathy, and even sadness. For instance, hearing about a brutal rape case initially, could make you clench your wrists tightly and even make you want to join those public protests for justice for the victim.
However, reading or hearing about a new rape case everyday can gradually lessen its impact on you. And prolonged exposure to this kind of news can make you enter a zone, where you stop caring about it altogether and it evokes absolutely no emotional response from you any more—because you’ve probably reached your saturation point.
Perhaps, this emotional numbness is the ‘cost of caring’
“These days, the news can deliver more to us than just information. It can deliver anxiety. With so much suffering in the world, hardly a day goes by when the news doesn’t expose us to more tragedy and loss,” says Dr. Poonam Poonia, Ph.D in clinical psychology and psychotherapist at Wellstar Clinic Diagnostic Pvt. Ltd., Gurugram and W- Pratiksha Hospital, Gurugram.
“One of my patients went into depression after Nirbhaya’s rape incident. In another case, a school-going girl started feeling like she’s been infected by coronavirus after repeatedly watching the news and reading about it everywhere,” she adds.
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With professional help by their side, these cases may not necessarily reach a point where they stop caring about what’s happening around them. However, many people could be unaware that they are going through a strange affliction, commonly referred to as ‘compassion fatigue’, which can impair their ability to empathize and make them emotionally numb or blunt in the long run.
Renowned psychologist, Charles Figley, defines it as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically, and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.” And Poonia explains that this secondary traumatic stress (STS) is “paradoxically, caused by our own compassion”.
But, is the news solely responsible for causing compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue can be caused due to a host of different factors:
Personalization of events could be to blame
Think of the times when being home alone makes you more scared than usual after watching an intense episode of Crime Patrol. This exactly is where the personalization factor comes into play.
“Watching tragic news can remind us of how fragile life is. It erodes our sense of safety and security, we tend to become vulnerable, and get into a panic mode as if it’s our turn next,” explains Aparna Samuel Balasundaram, an award-winning clinical psychotherapist and counsellor.
“We begin to personalize what we see and think that if it could happen there, it could happen here, if it could happen to someone else, it could happen to me and my loved ones too. We, thus, start narrating someone else’s tragic story in our heads, while assuming the role of the lead protagonist/sufferer in that story,” she adds.
Your exposure to it matters too
According to Balasundaram, the more you’re exposed to news like that, the more you’re likely to get compassion fatigue.
Another point to consider here is that even though the tragedy might have occurred once, but hearing about it on different news channels can magnify its intensity of impact in our heads, making us more prone to compassion fatigue.
And, of course, your resilience has a huge role to play
The better your ability to cope and keep up with stressful situations, the more resilient you are in life. And the more resilient you are, the more likely you are to get compassion fatigue.
“People with a higher resilience levels are able to empathize with a situation, but are also able to emotionally detach themselves from it. As for people, who do not have a very high resilience level, watching such things happening around can traumatize them, in a phenomenon, clinically known as ‘vicarious trauma’. This means that seeing someone else’s trauma can ‘vicariously’ affect them too,” Balasundaram explains.
Your personal life is making you prone too
Balasundaram also points out that if you’re stressed about certain things in your personal life, you’re as it is vulnerable, and are in a space, where hearing or seeing anything negative can make things worse for you. This could be another reason why you can become emotionally unresponsive to traumatic news.
Your defense mechanisms could be at play
Consciously or unconsciously, some people can turn to compassion fatigue or emotional bluntness to run away from the harsh realities of the world.
“You may feel like your compassion and empathy are being spent on issues that you have little control or influence over. You could feel that it is better to be away from all of this instead of draining your energy over problems that you cannot make better,” Dr Arati Suryawanshi, psychologist, Bhatia Hospital, Mumbai, points out.
The pressure to feel something can also make things worse
According to Dr Suryavanshi, so much exposure can make us feel pressured about HAVING to care about everything that’s happening and that can be quite overwhelming as well.
Are you suffering from compassion fatigue?
Certain symptoms of compassion fatigue can help detect the problem at an early stage:
Behavioural and emotional symptoms: While Balasundaram warns against irritability, anger, and sadness as signs of compassion fatigue, Dr Suryavanshi points out that the most important symptom is feeling burdened by the suffering of others.
“Some people also end up blaming others for their suffering. They start isolating themselves, could experience a loss of pleasure in life, find it difficult to concentrate on regular tasks, and feel helpless or powerless too,” she says.
Physiological symptoms: Balasundaram touts disturbed sleeping and eating habits–such as insomnia, nightmares, oversleeping, overeating, or not eating enough—as physiological symptoms of compassion fatigue. She also mentions that one could become ‘hypervigilant’ and get startled at the smallest degree of change/news.
Cognitive symptoms: She also mentions that one could show cognitive symptoms such as becoming hypervigilant by getting extremely startled/shocked at the smallest piece of news. Additionally, paranoia and emotional bluntness/numbness/detachment are also a part of the cognitive symptoms.
How can you deal with compassion fatigue?
Give yourself a break: One of the biggest reasons why we are being exposed to disturbing events 24X7 is because we are hooked to our smartphones. So, the best way to handle this according to Dr Suryavanshi is to take some time off from these devices.
While it may not be possible to stay away from mobile phones the whole day, you can limit your screen time.
Create boundaries: While it is okay to feel empathetic, Balasundaram stresses on the importance of knowing that you should not personalize what you see. And the moment you feel like you’re the person, who is in that situation facing that tragedy, you must remind yourself to not get so involved. After all, it’s okay to feel sad, but it’s not okay to place yourself in the victim’s shoes.
Look at the bright side also: Remind yourself that though there’s a lot of tragedy in the world, there’s also a lot of goodness in the world. Count the blessings in your life as well as in the lives of those, you’re feeling compassion for. Because even though there’s tragedy happening in that person’s life, focusing on the positive aspects of his/her life can keep you from becoming too emotional about it.
Balasundaram recommends maintaining a gratitude journal—either in writing or in your head–wherein you’re thankful for your blessings and for the blessing of those around you.
Reconnect with your emotional side: The idea is to find a purpose and the meaning of your life by reconnecting with your empathetic side. It can make your living worthwhile. Focus on real things and make the present moment worthwhile by giving back to the society, having a positive fellowship, and by building a more helpful and positive society.
“This won’t just give you a sense of fulfilment and help you reconnect with your emotional side, but it can even help you see the good and the positive in the society too,” Balasundaram says.
Take care of yourself: Get proper sleep, eat a healthy and balanced diet, and exercise to maintain a healthy mind as well as a healthy body.
Reach out for help: If compassion fatigue is making it difficult for you to carry on the day-to day activities and concentrate on work, you must reach out to a professional for help.