When the Oregon wildfires first started, I remember seeing the infamous photos of red skies and darkened horizons – the photos looked like they were dipped in red ink or covered with a red filter. I remember first seeing the photo on Reddit, featuring a UPS truck and an almost blood-red background. For me, the worst part wasn’t the feeling of horror at yet another climate disaster, or the anger at humanity’s activities that allow such disasters to occur, or even sympathy for fellow human beings in Oregon (where the first photo was taken), but it was just…apathy. Empty, hollow, apathy. A stray thought crossed my mind, who cares?, before I stopped and realised, maybe I should care. I hated myself for not having any particular emotion towards such horrific events, and that self-hate drove me towards being more compassionate and more empathetic. Honestly, though? I later realised that these feelings of emptiness, of apathy, at seeing so many disasters and horrors at once is normal – there’s even a term for it. It’s known as ‘compassion fatigue’.

Compassion fatigue can also be defined as secondary trauma or vicarious trauma, according to Psychology Today, and was often seen in professions that involved prolonged exposure to other people’s trauma (like healthcare, for example). However, in today’s world, with constant access to many of the world’s atrocities and injustices on multiple devices, it is possible to notice and be aware of injustices that take place in remote corners of the world, yet be helpless to stop them. As Dr. Amit Sood points out in his book, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, “We are inundated with graphic images of the unimaginable suffering of millions. We can fathom the suffering of a few, but a million becomes a statistic that numbs us.” It’s this numbing, this apathy, that has been termed as compassion fatigue, and it’s a concern that is quickly growing in the general public. 

Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include physical and mental fatigue, poor self-care, difficulty concentrating, feelings of guilt, of shame, of hopelessness, and denial of the fatigue you feel. Denial is one of the more concerning symptoms.  It prevents you from assessing how stressed they are, and from seeking help. 

Compassion fatigue is dangerous because it tends to eat away at your conscience, and can trigger a toxic cycle of guilt and shame.  You end up feeling guilty for not having the energy to care and force yourself to stay more active,. This can then make you feel more fatigued at the end of it. 

However, like any other stress-related condition, compassion fatigue can impact the quality of your life. However,  it can be treated, and the first step is to be aware of how you’re feeling. Driving yourself to the point of burning out to take care of others is dangerous. It results in you not being able to do your best for the ones you care about. If you feel like you’ve had some moments when you just wanted the world to stop for a few moments (like me), or wanted to close your eyes and ignore what’s happening around you (me again), it’s time to take a step back and take a closer look at the path you’re on.

If you feel symptoms of compassion fatigue, try and reach out to a loved one. Talk about how you feel and why you feel this way, but the important thing is to set boundaries. If you’re overburdened, take a break and don’t read the news for a few days. Most disasters and injustices are out of your control. Your mind needs a rest. It can be hard to step away from what’s happening, but it’s necessary to be kind to yourself. If you want to continue browsing social media, focus on feel-good, wholesome pages, and stay away from news-related platforms. 

It’s important to take a step back and take care of yourself, but that doesn’t have to mean you isolate yourself either. Community care can be tied in with self-care – after all, people are inherently social creatures. In the long run, it’ll keep you compassionate, empathetic, and sane. 

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  • Natalia Ahmed

    Natalia Nazeem Ahmed is a budding writer and editor with a BA from Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune, India, with a major in English Literature and a double minor in Philosophy and Film Studies. An avid reader, her goal is to build a career out of her fiction and non-fiction writing. In her spare time, she loves to knit for her loved ones.