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The pandemic and compassion fatigue

Continuing to show compassion can be difficult during the pandemic as one may be overwhelmed by distressing news
Last Updated : 30 July 2021, 14:11 IST
Last Updated : 30 July 2021, 14:11 IST

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Watching the media coverage of a chilling incident in which a teenage boy was beaten to death for violating lockdown rules left me disturbed. I could not stop thinking about this boy who had become the victim of random police cruelty. Would the police officers be held accountable? How can we, as a society, stop such injustice? Within two days, the story became old and disappeared from news feeds.

The relentless coverage of the pandemic has intensified a condition, which psychologists refer to as ‘compassion fatigue.’ The term first originated nearly three decades ago, when it was associated with nurses who were experiencing a loss in an emotional response from a prolonged and repeated exposure to suffering and trauma among patients. It is generally attributed to an American researcher, Carla Joinson, who in 1992 studied behaviour patterns in nurses in the emergency department and noted characteristics of compassion fatigue among them, including emotional and physical exhaustion and dysfunction.

Research suggests that over time, exposure to distressing stimuli can either trigger a wave of sensitisation or can result in the brain exhibiting a lower emotional response. This condition is called ‘psychic numbing’, another term used in psycho-social research that studies the impact of media exposure and other troubling images on individuals.

Psychic numbing typically occurs in the face of large-scale tragedies when people reach a saturation point and start to reject information instead of responding to it. Studies show individuals tend to respond to a single death with more urgency than to a global crisis.

Adaptive strategy

Noted American psychologist Dana Rose Garfin, who has spent years researching the antecedents of trauma and stress, explains this phenomenon as “an adaptive strategy to shut down when a problem seems too overwhelming to cope with.” When confronted with a problem that is too complex, it can lead to widespread helplessness among people who believe their actions will not make a difference.

In some individuals, especially those who are emotionally more vulnerable, a bombardment of bad news can trigger the opposite reaction. The more distressed they become, the more they want to engage with news that is disturbing. This negativity bias, in which the brain is wired to feed into news that is dangerous, makes it a reciprocal cycle.

To some degree, all human brains have a negativity bias — a natural adaptive human response, in which the danger circuitry in the brain gets activated to identify threats. Experts say there is a downward spiral between seeking more negative information and being further distressed and seeking it again.

“The mind loops over the same fact over and over again,” explains Dr Sujata Kelkar Shetty, a wellness expert based in Bengaluru. “One should consciously switch off all gadgets and not listen to the news an hour before going to bed.”

There is a growing consensus among psychologists today that intense exposure to violent, shocking news can have compounding, long-term repercussions, that go beyond momentary feelings of despair. On a neurological level, it can cause stress, insomnia, mood swings and sadness that can last for years. In extreme cases, it can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies found in some people, the effects were linked to functional impairment, where their day-to-day living was affected by the trauma they had internalised. The signs can surface months, even years, later. When it experiences something troubling, the brain goes into a fight-or-flight mode which activates the sympathetic nervous system and can trigger anxiety. The body then starts to release stress hormones like cortisol, which in turn can lead to heart disease and inflammation in the body.

The nature of news has changed dramatically in the last two decades, as have our viewing habits. We are deluged with information, day and night. Typically, people have multiple sites open on various gadgets at the same time. While it is important to stay informed, especially during a national crisis, it is equally critical to find the right balance. Cooking, art, exercise, and socialising have proven to be effective ways to infuse positivity into our lives.

Media and technology are shown to have enormous benefits if used correctly, especially among older adults. Senior citizens, when taught how to embrace technology, can derive utmost joy from it.

To avoid compassion fatigue, it is essential to adopt a healthy, mindful approach to the information around us. The challenge is to find that happy medium that allows us to be engaged in a productive, robust way, without getting burnt-out.

(The author is a former BBC journalist based in Singapore)

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Published 30 July 2021, 13:51 IST

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