Times of Crisis, We Need a Revolution

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
— Audre Lorde

“Compassion fatigue” is a common experience among nurses, therapists, and health professionals [1].  Common symptoms of this kind of burnout include diminished empathy and less interest and investment in helping others. In addition, some people may also experience secondhand or “collective trauma,” internalizing the symptoms of trauma simply by way of being exposed to traumatic images and stories [2]. 

Although this phenomenon is commonly studied in professional caretakers, I would venture to say that perhaps a large population in the United States, even across the globe, could be experiencing a dose of compassion fatigue. Perhaps now more than ever, with the constant rush of information available to us at any waking moment, we often carry more of an emotional burden than we are equipped to bear. To get a sense of the staggering quantity of data created and shared on the internet every second, check out these live statistics here: http://www.internetlivestats.com/one-second/

What is the cost of compassion fatigue?

We might be feeling more loneliness.

Even though we are now hyper-connected through social media and ephemeral social interaction, it may not satisfy our needs for social support [3].  This suggests that social networking may make us more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. Loneliness has been linked with depression, deteriorating functional health (e.g., mobility, physical activity), and even shorter life [4]. As such, many doctors and researchers have deemed loneliness a public health concern [5].

We might be alienating others, without even knowing it.

When we abandon compassion, we risk becoming disaffected, maybe cynical. Without this motivation to relate to others, we might be unintentionally reinforcing the arbitrary categories that separate “us” and “them.”[6]. 

Self-care is the best antidote.

Interestingly, this kind of burnout is most likely to occur when people neglect to implement regular self-care behaviors. Self-care should be multidimensional: addressing physical, psychological, spiritual, and social needs [7]. The problem is that many of us neglect to ask ourselves what we need, until after burnout or fatigue hits us.

The good news is that self-care behaviors can restore emotional balance and greater compassion. Research finds that counselors who learned a mind-body approach to self-care (i.e., yoga, meditation, qigong) demonstrated a boost in their emotional and physical health, and an improvement in their ability to care for others [8]. Similarly, even those who are not professional caretakers report experiencing less stress and less rumination (repetitive and intrusive negative thoughts) after practicing mindfulness meditation [9].

Too often we confuse self-care with selfishness. It can be difficult to give ourselves permission to take time away from the many obligations vying for our attention when it feels like there is always so much to attend to and take care of. Taking a more holistic approach, we find that the ability to make productive and prosocial contributions is directly related to emotional and physical well-being. Regardless of who you are and what you do for a living, self-care is a necessary act of self-preservation. Imagine what kind of world we could create if each person took responsibility to nourish themselves and recharge their batteries as needed?

 A self-care revolution may just be the key to greater understanding, cooperation, and productivity for all!

1.     Figley, C. R. (2002). Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists' chronic lack of self care. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 1433-1441.

2.     Holman, E. A., Garfin, D. R., & Silver, R. C. (2014). Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 93-98.

3.     Bayer, J. B., Ellison, N. B., Schoenebeck, S. Y., & Falk, E. B. (2016). Sharing the small moments: Ephemeral social interaction on Snapchat. Information, Communication & Society, 19, 956-977.

4.     Luo, Y., Hawkley, L. C., Waite, L. J., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: A national longitudinal study. Social Science & Medicine, 74, 907-914.

5.     Gerst-Emerson, K., & Jayawardhana, J. (2015). Loneliness as a public health issue: The impact of loneliness on health care utilization among older adults. American Journal of Public Health, 105, 1013-1019.

6.     Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological Review, 102, 4.

7.     Richards, K., Campenni, C., & Muse-Burke, J. (2010). Self-care and well-being in mental health professionals: The mediating effects of self-awareness and mindfulness. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 32, 247-264.

8.     Schure, M. B., Christopher, J., & Christopher, S. (2008). Mind-body medicine and the art of self-care: Teaching mindfulness to counseling students through yoga, meditation, and qigong. Journal of Counseling and Development: JCD, 86(1), 47.

9.     Shapiro, S. L., Oman, D., Thoresen, C. E., Plante, T. G., & Flinders, T. (2008). Cultivating mindfulness: Effects on well-being. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64, 840-862.