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Tackling the realities of compassion fatigue in the 21st century, this illustration of a girl reaching out to an overwhelming wave of social issues.

In the age of technology it’s never been easier to stay informed — and burnt out.

 

We’ve all probably heard someone older than us talking about how the world isn’t as safe as it used to be. And while it may seem like this is true, there is actually data to prove this isn’t the case. The reason we may think this is true is due to increased news coverage and access to information. Televised reports and social media have allowed us to become exposed to everything, all of the time. This can make it seem as if there are bad things constantly going on that we need to pay attention to. It evokes fear and anxiety in us as a society, but it also starts to make us feel like we need to care for every issue at all times.

Ditch paper straws and save the turtles. Stand with Hong Kong. Change your profile picture to blue for Sudan. Believe women. Don’t forget China has Muslim internment camps. Make sure to call your representative for gun control. Don’t listen to R Kelly. But remember, families are being separated at the border. Go vegan for the environment.

Our society is dominated by sensory overload. At the touch of our fingertips we have access to any information we could possibly want. That’s the root of the problem. We are more informed of social issues than we’ve ever been. We are exposed to so much all of the time that it can become taxing to focus on every issue we read about.

Every issue has its own individual importance and requires our attention to help resolve it. Knowing that we as a community are vital to aiding a cause can brew a sense of responsibility. When we subscribe to so many topics, we spread our empathy out so thin that we begin to reach the limits of our emotional attention. When we reach these limits, we can go from being obsessively passionate about dozens of topics to simply not caring about a single one in particular. This is compassion fatigue.

Psychologist Charles Figley defines compassion fatigue as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.” The symptoms are “emotional numbing, detachment, or absence of emotional responsiveness, reduction in awareness of surroundings, exhaustion, depletion of empathy.” It is most clinically associated with cases of Acute Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the term can be applied to our everyday lives and constant exposure to news as well.

Sometimes it may feel that with so many bad things to focus on we can easily burn ourselves out emotionally. This is for two reasons. Surrounding ourselves with the negativity of so many worldly problems causes us to see the world in a gray shade. It can seem as if the world has never been bleaker. This instills a feeling of hopelessness. “What’s the point? What can I do anyway?” These phrases may become questions we ask ourselves as we feel that anything we do is useless for the cause anyway.

The second reason is simple and goes in hand with feeling hopeless. Constantly giving attention to anything becomes tiring. Especially, if we aren’t seeing the results we hope to see. No matter how angry and passionate a topic makes us feel, if we think that calling our representatives for the fifth time this week isn’t going to actually make a difference then we simply won’t dial for a sixth.

Compassion fatigue can cause us to subsequently become numb to all issues or begin to care less and less about each one. This is because we have to stretch our empathy out to focus on all of them at once. At a certain point, we can become too angry at every social issue that we start to detach from every issue all together. We spread ourselves out too thin and crash.

So, how can we avoid compassion fatigue? The simplest answer is to prioritize. If it’s unsustainable to subscribe to every issue all of the time, then pick just a handful to care about. Focusing on everything can be like keeping 40 overwhelming tabs in your brain open at once. Prioritize your time and emotional capacity by closing some tabs until you’re less overwhelmed. First assess which topics are most important to you and adjust your tabs accordingly.

Even if you’re a die-hard baseball fan, you can occasionally watch a football game without having to purchase the season pass. That’s what prioritizing your tabs is, essentially. You may feel that reducing our plastic use is important, but you recognize that to you it’s not as important as opposing the effect corporations have on the environment.

Know that it’s okay to mentally unsubscribe from a topic. We may feel responsible for ensuring that an issue gets the attention it deserves and that’s what makes letting go so hard. However, one thing to keep in mind is that closing a tab on an issue doesn’t mean you no longer care about it, but that you may care about another topic more. It also means that, just how you chose to care more about one issue over the other, someone else might have done the opposite and chose to care more about the topic you’re choosing to let go. You may be closing that tab, but others aren’t. There will still be others who will fight for that cause.

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