As the pandemic drags on, we need empathy more than ever.
When my husband and I received emails from our employers telling us they were shutting down our offices, the pandemic suddenly felt very real and very scary.
I was flooded with a desire to help friends, family, and coworkers. Not knowing what I could do, I pledged to myself that I’d be extra compassionate to others.
After all, we were all going through something incredibly stressful and unprecedented. Being kind and patient was the least I could do.
And it seemed like we were all a little extra compassionate with each other.
Managers were understanding of my crying baby in the background of virtual meetings, I was extra sensitive to my son’s tears, and my husband and I were good at checking in with each other to see how we were handling all the stress.
But over time, that started to wear off.
Before long, both my husband and I found it easy to snap at each other. I found myself getting frustrated when my dog took too long on morning walks or easily frazzled when my son started to cry.
Sometimes, I’d willingly avoid calls from family across the country because I didn’t have the energy to listen to what was happening in their lives, especially if I suspected they were calling with bad news.
A sick dog, a COVID-19 diagnosis, or a lost job felt like too much.
I’m not alone in feeling like this. Lots of friends and family have shared similar stories of feeling on edge or numb this year.
In other words, we might be starting to feel compassion fatigue.
The pandemic rages on with no end in sight, and other crises — like racial injustices, wildfires, and hurricanes — sap our emotional energy even more.
“Compassion fatigue is a decrease in the ability of a person to empathize due to physical and mental exhaustion,” explains Brian Wind. Wind is a clinical psychologist, chief clinical officer at JourneyPure, and adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University.
Emotional symptoms include:
- dread at having to care for another person
- diminished sense of fulfillment in helping another person
“The person may feel burdened by the suffering of others or start to blame others for their suffering,” says Wind.
Compassion fatigue can cause physical symptoms too, including:
- weight loss
- substance abuse
It most often afflicts healthcare professionals, but it can affect anyone who has to care for or about others. This includes:
- full-time caretakers
- people who are particularly empathetic
Unlike other disasters that tend to bring people together to rebuild, pandemics make you fear your neighbor.
“Pandemics cause compassion fatigue because the price is so high with getting sick and the fear it generates,” explains Charles Figley, founder and leading researcher at the Traumatology Institute at Tulane.
“The cost of caring is sometimes high,” says Figley.
Every day we hear about the millions of Americans who have been infected by the new coronavirus and the hundreds of thousands who have died, often alone and away from family.
We hear the pain of their grieving loved ones, as well as the hardships faced by people losing their jobs, fearing eviction, and being unable to feed their families.
“We get burned emotionally when we absorb trauma on a regular basis without a working plan to manage the consequence of the trauma memories and its wake of impact,” says Figley.
This is why, throughout history, plagues have often led to loss of compassion. In the early 15th century and 16th century, plague victims were shipped to an island to die and buried in mass graves. In other cities, victims were sealed in their homes and no food or care was allowed.
In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe wrote about an epidemic that struck London in 1665.
“This was a time when everyone’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distress of others,” Defoe wrote. “The danger of immediate death to ourselves took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.”
“Everyone is struggling, and so it’s important to look out for each other,” says Eric Zillmer, a professor of neuropsychology. “Compassion creates a sense of belonging and a feeling of peace and mindfulness.”
Compassion can help us feel less isolated, depressed, and anxious, he adds.
It can also help us work together, keep up morale, and better work toward solutions to the social problems COVID-19 has spotlighted.
These simple steps can help you cope when you notice that stress is getting the better of you.
Create a self-care plan
“Just like in an airplane where the oxygen masks deploy, we have to manage our physical and emotional well-being first,” says Zillmer. “Otherwise being compassionate is not within our reach.”
Self-care looks a little different for everyone.
Some of your usual self-care tactics may be off-limits due to the pandemic, like going to that yoga class you loved or taking a vacation. But self-care doesn’t have to be complicated.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as:
- remembering to take a short walk outside everyday
- taking a few minutes for meditation
- making time for a hobby
Getting enough sleep also goes a lot further than you might think.
Whatever your plan is, try to stick to it.
Medical and mental health professionals often focus on their job until the work is done, then do a formal or informal debriefing to process the day’s events. You can do the same with a journal to give yourself space to process your feelings about what’s going on in the world.
“Journal regularly to help you understand your thoughts and feelings and release them from your mind,” says Wind. “End by writing three things you’re grateful for that day.”
According to Wind, this practice can help you see the good amid the suffering.
Be aware of how bad news affects you
“Be aware of your own physical, as well as mental, reactions,” says Figley.
A lot of us carry stress in our bodies. If you notice your jaw is clenched, your shoulders are hurting, or you feel physically tense, it might be a good time to take a break from the situation.
You’re not in a good place to help anyone if you’re on the verge of snapping.
“The more [compassion] we dispense, the more we feel fatigued,” says Figley. “Doomscrolling, like any other [activity] that involves spending lots of time online reading about others’ misery, quickly turns into an emotional merry-go-round ride that results in depressive and disturbing collusion.”
Admittedly, it’s hard to get away from a constant stream of information during the pandemic.
It’s important to stay informed, but at some point you’ve read enough to know what’s going on.
You aren’t actually taking in new information. You’re just taking in stress.
“You just keep looking for something new [as] a way of managing anxiety and uncertainty. You’re hoping to find some new information or some good news, but guess what? There’s no new information,” says Vaile Wright, psychologist and senior director of healthcare innovation at the American Psychological Association.
This kind of vigilance can be debilitating.
“You keep hearing these negative stories over and over and over again, and it keeps you in a state of hyper-arousal where you’re constantly, chronically stressed — and that is going to have some serious health and mental health consequences,” says Wright.
Try to set limits on yourself and take breaks from exposure to traumatic material. If it’s hard, put your phone in the other room for a bit so you can disconnect — literally.
Find proactive ways to help others
The pandemic brings a lot of bad news, and it leaves a lot of us feeling powerless in our ability to actually help.
This increases the chances that, over time, you might feel the need to tune out from other people’s suffering.
Instead, try to find proactive things you can do that make a difference.
These can be small acts of kindness for friends and family, like mailing a care package or running errands for neighbors. You can offer to do this in community groups like Nextdoor.
You can also get involved with a charity or cause you believe in.
Focus on what you can control
When things feel overwhelming, it helps to zoom in on the things that don’t. Simple routines can become a lifesaver when the world is in chaos.
Put your energy into cooking nourishing meals, watching your favorite shows, or going for a walk in your favorite park. Maybe you take some time to clean out your closet or organize your bookshelf.
These seemingly simple acts can bring back a sense of normalcy and agency when we’re feeling impotent.
You might be tired of the pandemic, but don’t let that erase your compassion.
Like with any kind of burnout, the key is making sure that we don’t get overloaded. It’s okay to take breaks for yourself. That’s how you come back energized and able to truly give.