Compassion Fatigue: How to Stay Engaged When the News is Overwhelming

This post is by SLP Faculty member and Guest Blogger Claire Wampler.

A few weeks ago, as Hurricane Maria crashed over Puerto Rico, a fourth grader at one of SLP’s partner schools said to me, “Miss Claire, there are so many bad things happening. I feel useless.”

I know just how she feels.

When the news came in that a massive fire was raging through the hills and vineyards of Northern California, I immediately felt myself pulling away from news about the hurricanes that recently devastated the Caribbean and the Gulf Coast, from the recovery effort in Mexico following two earthquakes, from the monumental tragedy of the Las Vegas shooting, and from the news rolling in from Washington. My 93-year-old grandmother was being preemptively evacuated from her Sonoma home, and horror of the fire – and its proximity to my own life and childhood in the Bay Area – was all that I could handle.

This concept isn’t new. NGOs and charities have a name for what happens when so many tragedies take place at once: donor fatigue.  Psychologists call it compassion fatigue, or Secondary Traumatic Stress, characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is most common in those who work directly with trauma victims – nurses, lawyers, police officers – but can also affect the general public. Journalism analysts believe that over-saturation of negative news has led to widespread compassion fatigue, causing the public to become cynical and resist helping those who are suffering.

At SLP, we talk about collective action and civic engagement as sustainable ways to make positive change.  We aim for our students to complete our program with a deepened sense of civic responsibility, as well as the knowledge that every person has the power to make change.  To be responsible and engaged citizens, however, we need to be informed – not overwhelmed.

Fortunately, there are things we can all do to combat compassion fatigue.

  1. Take a break: Take a day off from following the news. Engage in activities that help you de-stress. Instead of feeling guilty, remember that taking care of yourself is the first step in taking care of others.
  2. Don’t try to solve the problem by yourself. Whether you are volunteering or fundraising for disaster relief, work with a group to reach your goal. Social support can help you maintain a balance in your worldview, and you’ll see a more dramatic impact from your collective action.
  3. Keep a journal. Journaling helps process and release emotions that may overwhelm you following a disaster. Taking time to reflect on the impact of what feels like endless tragedy can help you avoid the emotional suppression that leads to compassion fatigue over time.

Do you have other strategies for dealing with compassion fatigue? Let us know in the comments below.