Is America Suffering from Compassion Fatigue?

by Tony Wyman

With the news of the world always at our fingertips, it shouldn’t be surprising that Americans are growing fatigued by a constant stream of bad news, mass shooting, destructive storms and rampaging wildfires.  With almost no way to escape the endless flow of information, more and more people are saying “Enough! Give me a break!”

In fact, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center early this year, 68% said they are overwhelmed by the volume of information coming at them day and night.  And, at a time when this information is often horribly tragic, Americans, recently ranked the seventh most empathetic people on the planet by Michigan State University researchers, are starting to show signs their capacity for caring is being stretched thin.

If you want proof of this, just look towards social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.  Posts proclaiming the writer’s exhaustion over the latest tragedy are everywhere.  “I am just so tired,” wrote a friend of mine on Facebook. “All I want is a week of nothing but good news!  Is that too much to ask?”

Bad News Travels Faster … and Gets Worse as it Goes

Apparently, it is.  Even though we are increasingly worn out by depressing, sad and often heartbreaking stories, we have a habit of sharing them ourselves with our friends on social media.  And, the more often we share these stories, the worse they get.

A study done by researchers at the Department of Psychology, University of Warwick in United Kingdom, determined people sharing bad news on social media added their own spin to the stories which, over time as the news was shared from one social media user to the next, made them both less accurate and worse sounding then they really were.

“Society is an amplifier for risk. This research explains why our world looks increasingly threatening despite consistent reductions in real-world threats,” said the leader of the research project, Dr. Thomas Hills, a psychology professor at the University of Warwick. “It also shows that the more people share information, the further that information gets from the facts and the more resilient it becomes to correction.”

Researchers took 14 groups of eight people and exposed them to news stories through social media.  The first person in the chain of posts was asked to comment on the news he read before passing it on to the next person in the group.  The second person who received the news from the initial poster was asked to comment, as well, before she passed the story on to the third person.  And so on until it reached the 6th person in the chain who received both the fifth person’s recounting as well as the original and most accurate rendition of the story.

Syrian boy injured by bombing
Images of a little boy injured during a Syrian bombing raid targeting civilians caused outrage across the globe. Pictures of children harmed by violence and war elicit emotional responses from viewers moved by the injustice of an innocent child being caught in crossfire .

What researchers found was, by the time the story reached the 6th reader, the perception of the threat contained in the news story had grown to the point where even exposure to the truthful first rendition of the news did little to calm readers.  Even when given unbiased and neutral facts about the story, readers at the end of the chain still saw the danger contained in the piece to be greater than it really was.

Compassion Fatigue

The problem with seeing things as being worse than they really are is people become more pessimistic that a solution can be found.  That pessimism makes it even more difficult for people who care about the issue to commit the emotional energy needed to deal with it psychologically.

This is called “compassion fatigue” and it is a growing problem in this plugged-in, connected, 24-hour-a-day access world of ours.

The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, a group dedicated to increasing awareness of the problem among professional caregivers, defines compassion fatigue as “…a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

This problem, though, is just limited to doctors, nurses, EMTs and others who make careers out of helping others; it’s also a growing problem for volunteers, charity workers, journalists, teachers and others who are passionate about helping others or who are just excessively empathetic by nature.

Bombarded with images of children suffering in war-torn Syria, of poor people in South America attempting to make a life for themselves and their families in areas terrorized by drug gangs, of young people dying of opioid addiction or falling prey to gun violence in schools across the country, everyday Americans are starting to feel the stress levels normally only felt by those who deal in person daily with the traumatic results of violence, oppression, crime and drug abuse.

Feeling Detached

What happens, then, when everyday people who aren’t trained to deal with the psychological impact of non-stop exposure to trauma, to heart-rending stories of good people suffering unimaginable cruelty and pain, finally reach the limit to what they are able to bear?

Some experience emotional signs such as sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, hopelessness and pessimism.  For others, the signs include physical or somatic symptoms such as nausea, vertigo and headaches.

Young activists
Activism is up across the nation, particularly with young people getting involved in a number of issues ranging from gun violence in schools to sexual harassment and environmental issues.

For many, the way to protect themselves is to become detached from the news, itself.  Elisa Gabbert, writing in the Guardian about the difficulty she had remaining emotionally attached to political issues she cared about, described her withdrawal from the news this way:

I haven’t called my senators in months. It was starting to feel like a waste of time and energy. On most occasions, our Republican senator’s office doesn’t even answer the phone. Most of the time, outrage itself feels largely useless. Stay mad, social media activists like to say. How hard is it to stay mad, I remember thinking last year – just watch 20 seconds of any news clip. But it did, in fact, get hard to stay mad. The news is still horrifying, at home and around the world; I know this intellectually, but the physical feeling of horror is gone.

What she experienced was the accumulative effects of endless demands for her emotional attention.  “There is so much bad news that it feels like we’re running out of emotions,” she wrote.  “I’m in a numb period.”

Numb Period

That numbness that Ms. Gabbert described can have a real world impact on how we, as a society, deal with a crisis.  When civic leaders facing the aftermath of a calamity, such as the fires sweeping California today or the storm that destroyed Mexico Beach, Florida, need volunteers to pitch in and help, when celebrities lead efforts to raise funds to help a recovery effort, they count upon the emotional energy of an engaged public to help them make a

California wildfires.
Natural disasters in Florida, South Carolina and California have wiped out whole communities and left thousands homeless this year.  More than 250,000 people in California have been forced to flee their homes while hundreds of thousands of acres have burned in the worst fires in the state’s history.


If that energy isn’t there, efforts to help an area recover are all that more difficult.

Dr. Robert Kraft, a professor of psychology at Otterbein University, put it this way:

In general, frequently watching images and reading stories of widespread tragedy may bring about emotional exhaustion, while influencing people to become desensitized, cynical, and resistant to helping those who are suffering.  In addition to personal implications, compassion fatigue in the general public has societal implications as well, especially when mass donations are needed for large scale disasters.

Listing a seemingly endless series of disasters, Dr. Kraft said, “These days, the American flag seems to be flying at half mast most of the time.”  But he warned that ignoring the terrible things happening in the world isn’t the solution. “Living in a globalized society means exposure to tragedy and suffering around the world. Avoiding or denying this tragedy and suffering is only a short term solution.  A more balanced approach is to stay informed about the world, increasing our knowledge and understanding of people outside our own communities, while also staying informed about ourselves – knowing when to engage with news of disturbing events and when to engage in active self care.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

So, how do you know if you are suffering from compassion fatigue?  There are a number of chronic signs to look for that can help you decide if you should be concerned:

  1. Chronic apathy – finding yourself going from one extreme to the other, from being deeply emotionally invested in issues about which you’ve always cared to being completely disinterested and not caring about developments at all.
  2. Negativity and defeatism – being unable to see a purpose in continuing to care about serious issues that once motivated you to take action
  3. Pessimism – believing that, no matter what anyone does to help, things are inevitably going to get worse without pause
  4. Isolation – withdrawing from social situations where being around people who would discuss world issues is likely
  5. Fatigue – existing in a state where you are exhausted all the time, regardless of the amount of sleep or rest you get.
  6. Anger – becoming quick to anger or irrationally angry at the slightest provocation. This could be physical exhaustion, as well as emotional fatigue
  7. Physical ailments – increased frequency or severity of headaches, nausea, vertigo, ability to sleep through the night, significant weight loss or gain not associated with exercise or diet

Self Care

Once you know the signs of compassion fatigue, what can you do to overcome it?  Dr. Kraft recommends six things:

First, he says, pay attention to the signs that you have compassion fatigue and take them seriously.  Ignoring them won’t make them go away, only dealing with them will have a positive impact.

Second, take time to step away from a emotionally stressful event.  Go for a walk, play some golf, have lunch with a friend.  Basically, understand that it is okay to enjoy a pleasurable activity to get your mind off a traumatic event, even if other people are still suffering.  Taking a step back and regaining your emotional energy will make you better able to contribute when help is needed.

Third, compartmentalize the news.  Instead of allowing it to dominate every minute of your day, set times when you will check in with the world to see what is going on.  Set those times between moments that allow you to be distracted from bad news by enjoyable or necessary tasks that demand your attention.

Fourth, be active in your response to tragedy in a way that is good for you.  Get out there and do something about the problem.  Don’t just sit in front of the TV or computer screen and worry.  Get involved in volunteering, going a food drive or an effort to rebuild.  Reach out to people who could use your help and get involved.  You’ll feel empowered.

Fifth, talk to friends about how they are coping with the bad news.  Share with them how you feel and get their feedback to gauge your own response.

And, sixth, if your symptoms persist or worsen, reach out to professionals for help.  There is a great deal of information about compassion fatigue here and on secondary traumatic stress here.

Good News About Bad News

While the idea that Americans are struggling with so much bad news is troubling, the good news is the only way anyone could have compassion fatigue is if they were compassionate in the first place.  Despite the depressingly high number of tragedies Americans have faced lately, compassion still remains high in the country.

Our countrymen gave $410 billion to charities in 2017, breaking the previous record by $21 billion and crossing the $400 billion mark for the first time.  “Americans’ record-breaking charitable giving in 2017 demonstrates that even in divisive times our commitment to philanthropy is solid. As people have more resources available, they are choosing to use them to make a difference, pushing giving over $400 billion,Aggie Sweeney, chair of Giving USA Foundation, said.

On top of that, there is no compassion fatigue without there being compassion, in the first place.  While social media contributes mightily to the exhaustion many Americans feel, it has also contributed to people from all walks of life coming together and helping each other out.  While there is division over a wide range of topics on social media, there are also numerous examples of people finding ways to come together to help each other out.

Just count the number of friends who dedicate their birthdays to raising money for a cause.  By August alone, Facebook birthday fundraisers brought in more than $300 million for charities, money that the social media platform will now match going forward.

While the amount of bad news the country has gotten recently is more than many can bear, it is clear that others with more energy are stepping into the void left open and helping out.  And that is something we should all keep in mind, that the problems of the world aren’t just ours to bear, that we aren’t the only ones able to solve them, that everything doesn’t depend on us.  If we need a break, if we need to spend a few hours at the lake or kicking soccer balls around the pitch or lifting weights at the gym, there will be plenty of others pitching in.

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