These days, unfortunately, one doesn’t have to search high and low to find some of the more prime examples of human suffering. They range in scale from desperate immigrants risking their lives en route to our southern border to those individuals and families living at the margins within our own communities who rely heavily upon the continued generosity of neighbors to sustain the local food bank and soup kitchen. Add to the mix those persons enduring a chronic medical condition, or myriad other life-altering changes, and we begin to experience an overload of sort when it comes to offering compassion.

David Desteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, wrote a piece recently in The Atlantic magazine that highlights this effect, stating: “Concern for others tends to nosedive as suffering grows because, thanks to our natural empathetic response, distress is a bit contagious. When we encounter people in pain, we not only recognize their discomfort, we feel it – an experience that can quickly become overwhelming. As a result, people can shut down emotionally and turn away, a result known as compassion fatigue.”

The origins of the term first surfaced decades ago in reference to those working in the caregiving fields, who tended to be hit the hardest due to the inherent “front line” nature of their daily routine. The physical and emotional stress endured by these dedicated professionals, many of whom entered a specific vocation in order to make a difference in the lives of others, left them vulnerable; eventually succumbing to the demands of the work.

In a study conducted during the mid-1990’s by Kinnick, Krugman, and Cameron titled “Compassion Fatigue: Communication and Burnout Toward Social Problems,” the researchers concluded: “In the workplace setting, burnout tends to be manifested in one of two ways: emotional exhaustion, characterized by the feeling that one is no longer able to give of himself to others; or through an ‘armor’ of detachment and depersonalization – developing an indifference to others’ needs.” 

For those not necessarily on the front lines of a caregiving field, our capacity to feel compassion is deeply rooted in our upbringing and personal experiences; therefore the degree to which we are able to absorb and respond accordingly to distressful events naturally will vary from person to person.

As our population ages, many of us have loved ones who are currently suffering from debilitating faculties, chronic pain, or who have experienced severe trauma. It’s not uncommon that we may find ourselves becoming desensitized, indifferent, or overwhelmed by these struggles and the secondary trauma often associated with them. It’s not because we no longer care, but more so a sign that we need to go inward to find more appropriate coping strategies. 

Consulting a professional, especially one well-versed in working with clients suffering from PTSD, is often a good place to start. Additionally, it’s critically important to evaluate and address one’s “self-care” methods so as not to neglect personal needs. Healthful changes in diet, exercise, establishing boundaries, balancing work/personal time; in addition to exploring the benefits of a regular yoga and meditation practice, are all within one’s reach.  

Connecting to nature or tapping into creative outlets like music and art have also been shown to reduce stress, along with related conditions associated with trauma. One might also consider limiting the exposure to mass media, with its 24-hr news cycle and constant dissemination of human tragedy. 

Finally, I’m reminded of a passage from international spiritualist Pema Chödrön’s classic work titled,“The Places That Scare You,” where she describes the important role that equanimity plays in developing a multi-step process to soften our hearts. In it, she states that “compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

Dave Davis
Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

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