- The images from social media, cable news, and other media outlets can overwhelm us with compassion
- Compassion fatigue is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion from repeated exposure to some element of human need or suffering.
- Pick one cause or person to impact and make a difference to avoid compassion fatigue.
The images and stories from the news can seem overwhelming. Additionally, the effects of everything from market volatility, violence seemingly in all corners, and an increasingly polarized society are enough to overwhelm any of us. Constant images and discussion of suffering and upheaval can lead to compassion fatigue, a state of emotional and physical exhaustion from repeated exposure to some element of human need or suffering. The term, sometimes called the negative cost of caring, is usually associated with first responders, therapists, and healthcare workers in regular contact with people dealing with extraordinarily difficult periods. In many cases, the very trait of compassion that attracts a professional to a helping career can erode, particularly if they are unable to exercise physical and emotional self-care. After witnessing human suffering for such a long period of time, people may become numb to it. It is a natural defense against such exposure.
News outlets, from 24-hour cable news channels to online media sources, are competing for attention. In that battle, they can push the limit to be more graphic. It is no longer enough to discuss human suffering through language. Instead, we see video footage of the wreckage and perhaps even watch rescue workers take bodies away from the debris. We see the graphic videos of the effects of the violence in Ukraine, including the faces of the victims and the grief of the families. In most cases, these videos, whether local crime or stories from far away, show people in the most difficult moments of their lives. Given the ease of video transmission, we are essentially right there with those most affected. In some cases, we are no longer viewers. We are witnesses.
Over half of Americans surveyed by the American Psychological Association said that the news causes stress. The repeated images of human and natural tragedies can cause as much stress via TV or social media as if you actually were at the event in person. In a 2014 survey, researchers from UC Irvine found that individuals watching repeated videos of the Boston Marathon bombing on the news experienced more stress than those there when it happened.
Seeing this human suffering for hours a day on cable news and social media can cause us as viewers to experience compassion fatigue. Like the emergency worker who is at the scene of several episodes of human suffering per week, we audience members are whisked from one disaster after another. Our amygdala, that part of our brains that detects and helps us respond to potential threats, is hijacked with the term “breaking news” on a too-frequent basis. It can make us not only feel less compassionate towards the next news story that will gain its 15 minutes of fame or, worse yet, less compassionate towards those closest to us when the suffering is in our household, family, or neighborhood.
The best way to combat compassion fatigue is to take action. A family might commit to supporting one natural disaster relief effort per year, hosting bake sales, clothing drives, and perhaps volunteering at shelters. It might be finding a charity supporting the millions of people fleeing Ukraine or letting your local representative hear your voice regarding any number of issues. We do not have to feel as if we should support everyone or everything or even feel as if we should be compassionate about every single news story that we come into contact. However, if we can find one cause that is most dear to us and do something about it, we can avoid elements of compassion fatigue and feel like we are making the world a better place. We can feel empowered to do something for others in a real and tangible way. Experiencing anxiety and worry while passively sitting on the couch will not help anyone. We can channel our compassion to have a real impact.
However, not unlike the causes and people most dear to us, our compassion requires care and maintenance to be most impactful. Walking away from the screen for a while and acting is the best solution to avoid becoming numb to a seemingly volatile and sometimes scary world. Like love, compassion should be seen as a verb, not a noun.
American Psychological Association. (2020, May). Stress in the time of COVID-19, Volume one.https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report
Holman EA, Garfin DR, Silver RC. Media's role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Jan 7;111(1):93-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1316265110. Epub 2013 Dec 9. PMID: 24324161; PMCID: PMC3890785.