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Compassion fatigue: When the world weighs heavily on your heart and mind

Oct. 4, 2017

Compassion fatigue: When the world weighs heavily on your heart and mind

By Mary Hightower 
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Fast facts:

  • Compassion fatigue can lead to feelings of despondency or anger
  • Compassion fatigue also known as ‘secondary traumatic stress’
  • Acknowledgement is first step to managing compassion fatigue

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LITTLE ROCK – Since Monday, our senses have been saturated by a seemingly endless loop of terrifying images and sounds from the shooting in Las Vegas that took more than 50 lives and injured hundreds.

“The videos are raw and gut-wrenching and difficult to turn away from,” said Brittney Schrick, an extension family life specialist with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Schrick’s PhD is in Human Development and Family Studies.  

Anxious Man
 Compassion fatigue can strike anyone. 

The mass shooting was just the latest in a series of horrifying realities that included the massive devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the terrorist attacks abroad and even crime in our own communities.

“We watch, and we feel, and we watch, and we feel, and we get tired,” she said. “We may feel it is our duty to keep watching because we not only care about what has happened or is still happening, we also do want to ignore the suffering of others.”

Sometimes we tune in because of personal connections to far-away places.

“Maybe your mom’s best friend just went to Puerto Rico this summer, or your best friend from high school lives in Houston,” Schrick said. “We are all connected, so in watching others suffer, we all suffer.”

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue, which is also known as secondary traumatic stress or trauma fatigue, can occur in first responders, mental health professionals, doctors, nurses, social workers and others who work closely with trauma survivors.

Symptoms may include dissociation, or that feeling you are somehow disconnected from yourself, anger, anxiety, trouble sleeping, nightmares, emotional disturbances, or feeling overwhelmed, powerless, or on edge. Physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches, or dizziness may also surface.

“It is normal to feel overwhelmed, despondent, or even angry in the wake of yet another tragedy,” Schrick said. “Compassion fatigue occurs when an empathy response -- feeling the feelings of others -- causes a professional to internalize the trauma of their patient or client after repeated exposure.”

However, compassion fatigue isn’t limited to professionals.

“No one is immune to the effects when surrounded by, what may feel like, continual tragedy,” she said. “Parents may feel the effects more strongly as they try to filter information and explain tragic events to children.”

Name it, manage it

Schick said that in order to avoid the negative effects of compassion fatigue, “it is important to acknowledge and name it.

“Often, simply taking a breath and noticing that you feel overwhelmed can be enough to start responding,” she said. “The most effective way for a non-professional to address compassion fatigue is to limit exposure to the traumatic event or coverage of the events.”

Schrick said that while professionals may be required as part of their jobs to continue exposure, a lay person is not.

“Turn off the television. Get away from social media. Connect with family and friends and other sources of strength,” she said. “Engaging in self-care such as exercise, healthy eating, or other activities that give you a boost can protect you from disengaging from your life.”

Follow Schrick’s Family Life Friday blog:

For more information on the family life resources of the Cooperative Extension Service and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, contact your county extension office.    

About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system. 

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.  

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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Media Contact: Mary Hightower
Dir. of Communication Services
U of A System Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
(501) 671-2126

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