How to care about the world without losing your mind

Compassion fatigue is very real, here’s how to deal with yours

Hero image in post
photo: Chrono, Lyrical Media, Spacemaker Productions / Neon
Hero image in post
photo: Chrono, Lyrical Media, Spacemaker Productions / Neon

Compassion fatigue is very real, here’s how to deal with yours

By Rhys Thomas04 Oct 2023
6 mins read time
6 mins read time

The world’s gone to shit. That’s not subjective, you know this all too well, we all do. Climate disasters are aplenty, 45 percent of gen z report worries about climate interrupt their daily lives. The economy is in tatters, and half of people struggling to pay bills report high anxiety. The news cycle, whether you get it from social or the tele, is like the weather – generally awful, and only getting worse. We haven’t even gone into the political situation, or the wars happening. It’s a lot to deal with, and naturally, many of us find it takes a toll on our ‘mental’. But what’s actually going on here?

Dan O'Hare, an educational psychologist and senior lecturer at The University of Bristol explains that within this general sensation of feeling overwhelmed at the world around us, there’s quite a few labels people use. There’s compassion fatigue, compassion fade, empathy burnout, and more. Here we’ll go into what all of these mean, and how to help yourself feel better.

What is compassion fatigue?

“My understanding,” says O’Hare, “is that compassion fatigue relates specifically to people who are dealing with traumatic events on a fairly daily basis. So nurses, doctors, social workers, psychologists.” Essentially, it’s when we have to show direct compassion to people in need often, and are directly involved. Often though, based on O’Hare’s definition, we often see this used improperly. On TikTok for example, there are videos with tens and hundreds of thousands of views who describe compassion fatigue as relating to a general sense of being exhausted by the way we live. “That’s more empathy burnout or activism burnout than compassion fatigue” he notes.

Due to social media being a text-based experience (yes, it’s video, but you have to search for things using words), now more than ever we see an importance in ascribing labels to the things we’re talking about. This is good, because it helps us to be precise in communication, but it also complicates things, especially when people take phrases out of context, or warp them like they’re playing the telephone game (you know when you whisper a message along a line of people and see how it changes at the end). So anyway, yes, labels are important. But to be clear, O’Hare stresses none of these are diagnoses. “We can't give someone a questionnaire and say they have any of these. These are descriptions of experiences that people report, which can be loosely but not clinically categorised.” He says.

What do all of these burnout types have in common?

From empathy burnout and activism burnout to compassion fatigue and compassion fade, there are some commonalities which include feeling exhausted, irritable, not necessarily wanting to hang out with friends because you're so caught up in these issues, being anxious, stressed, guilty, angry, feeling hopeless, not sleeping well, having nightmares. But they are all different, and different labels have different emotions and weights of emotions attached to them.

There is also compassion fade, which is slightly different to many of the above, but related. Compassion fade is to do with desensitising from an issue. “Very specifically, we also find that as the size of the group we're meant to be compassionate about increases, our ability to be compassionate decreases,” O’Hare says. This is often due to the overwhelming nature of the issue, and this in itself also shows why we easily burnout due to thinking about such large distressing events and circumstances.

How does social media impact this?

Hyper and global communication, like social media, has a strong effect on compassion and empathy. We see a lot of intense stuff, all the time. It’s exhausting. But also, “Social media can lead to world-changing change relatively rapidly yet that focus and attention can dissipate rapidly.” O’Hare says. This articulates the sensation many of us have that the world has moved on from a very important issue far too quickly. It doesn’t mean that social media is bad, as such, but being mindful of the effect social media has on us is useful.

So how do we deal with these issues?

Well initially, forgive yourself. When we’re feeling like this due to huge events, “It is a pretty normal reaction,” O’Hare says. These are often things that people can't alter and change on an individual level, at least not to the level that they would like to.

Part of forgiving yourself also means having the self acceptance to say: I'm not going to that meeting tonight, because I'm actually just going to watch a film and eat some chocolate. Avoid the sense of guilt that you aren’t engaging. While this sounds like it’s saying to just stop doing the thing you care about, O’Hare likens it to putting your own mask on first, before you helping someone else:

“If you're not taking care of yourself, and ensuring you have the energy and the strength to carry on with those passions and interests that you're pursuing, how are you going to be effective for anyone else? How is it going to help you to turn up exhausted, you know, feeling really low and cynical?”

“Another way to look at it is, to imagine your energy reserves as a bucket full of water. You take some out for the cause, but where are you re-filling the bucket? And are you doing it constantly, or only when you run out of water?” He adds.

With that in mind, breaks are good. If your activism or place of engagement is social media, consider a break. A break, rest generally, means different things to different people. Identifying what may actually replenish you is an important starting point. Is that a break from socials? Talking to friends about other things? Have a think!

Also remember that some stress can be good for us. Stress can be really functional and helpful for us. But we need balance, and rest. We could just continually swim constantly, we need to eat, we need to rest, we need to spend time relaxing. There may be a social aspect to it, but we don't seem to give ourselves time to switch off in these instances.

Finally, O’Hare says, “This is not revolutionary, but eating well, sleeping, and exercising, these always drop off and have a substantial impact on our wellbeing, doing your best with these will be a huge help”.