New year. New disasters!
As if the challenges of the past two years haven’t been tough enough, recently our hearts have gone out to the people of the Ukraine and our own communities impacted by devastating floods.
The cycle of natural and man made disasters seems to be speeding up. Bush fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, food insecurity and wars; the world we live in is feeling increasingly hostile.
For those far from the impact zones, the doomscolling can become overwhelming. We don’t complain about the minor inconveniences impacting our lives, knowing things are far worse in other places. Gratitude is an important practice, but doesn’t necessarily stop compassion fatigue from setting in.
What is compassion fatigue?
Sometimes described as vicarious trauma, the term was originally coined in relation to front line workers, stressed and overloaded to the point of losing empathy for those they are trying to help.
But it’s increasing been used to describe how ordinary people, those not directly involved in responding to an emergency, begin to shut down and lose empathy when exposed to repeated disasters in the news.
Some warning signs of this type of compassion fatigue include:
- Loss of empathy for those involved in the disaster
- Increased irritability, anger or other mood changes
- Less ability to feel joy
- Problems sleeping
- Increased drug/alcohol use (or other ways we numb ourselves such as binge viewing, gambling, shopping etc).Or perhaps you feel like you’ve had enough and just can’t stand the thought of being exposed to more bad news?
10 tips to increase resilience and reduce compassion fatigue
At times when your resilience is under threat, what can you do to take care of yourself and still maintain your compassion? How do we connect in a healthy way to a disaster outside of our own life, without being consumed by emotion or becoming desensitsed and switching off?
By consciously letting go of the drama and learning to centre ourselves, meditation is the simplest way to regain our compassion mojo.
While meditation doesn’t change what is going on in our world, it can help us alter the way we respond to it. In a way it “heals the mind” to help us be less reactive to the stresses of daily life.
Read more about how and why to meditate.
2. Switch off screens
Drama is addictive. It’s easy to feel compelled to keep checking the news and social media, especially if you’re prone to anxiety. Ration your exposure to news stories and check in with any compulsion to constantly update your feed. Studies have shown that we can be negatively impacted by news exposure of disasters, even to the point of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from watching disasters on television. The risk of PTSD may be even greater for children.
3. Pat a pet:
Spending time with a loved cat or dog lowers our physiological reaction to stress.
When we don’t have specialized skills that can directly help those impacted by a disaster, money is the next best thing. While we often have the urge to donate things, unless an on the ground agency has made a specific call out for goods, give some cash if you can afford it. Even a little helps. Consider what you buy to bring you comfort – books, movies, music or a cup of coffee? Donate the equivalent you’d spend on comfort buying over a week, a month or a year.
5. Think global, act local
When we can’t actually pick up a shovel or rebuild a devastated town, we can still offer hands on help in our own community. Find a cause that resonates, donate blood, get involved in your neighbourhood and offer someone a hand.
6. Learn First Aid
Even when you think you don’t live in a disaster-prone location, the unexpected can strike. Be prepared. The least we can do is to know how to save a life.
7. Be kind
It’s not unusual to feel a little frayed when all we hear is bad news. Be gentler on yourself and those around you. Cut yourself and others some extra slack. Learn to change your reaction to stress.
8. Accept what you can and can’t control
It may feel like the world as we know it is coming to an end but we are a resilient species. War, famine, flood, fire and quakes are not new. Humans have an incredible ability to recover. But that doesn’t mean do nothing. For example, if you’re concerned about the increase in climate-related ‘natural’ disasters, use your vote wisely.
9 Reconnect with nature
Studies have shown being outside in nature improves vitality. What’s more spending time in nature makes us more caring. “Exposure to natural as opposed to man-made environments leads people to value community and close relationships and to be more generous with money”.
10. Seek professional help:
if you find your reactions more extreme than those around you or current events trigger old traumas, please see a psychologist. In Australia, a mental health plan from your GP may facilitate a Medicare rebate for these sessions.
In addition, a naturopathic consultation can provide targeted natural remedies and lifestyle guidance to help build your resilience.
This article was originally published in April 2011, following earthquakes in Christchurch and Fukishima and updated in March 2022.