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What is Compassion Fatigue and how it relates to the digital overwhelm?

By Dr. Nicole Cain ND, MA
May 17, 2020
8:00 am

What is Compassion Fatigue and how it relates to the digital overwhelm? How Emotional Intelligence can help you!

The impact of the media on the human psyche. Signs of compassion fatigue. The 8 Key Skills for Emotional Intelligence and 8 Actionable Items for Emotional Regulation that you can use!

Solidarity in human suffering is a tradition that has spanned continents, cultures, and generations. During death or loss, communities throughout history have gathered together to offer gifts, to grieve, celebrate, and to carry out valued family and tribal traditions.

It is normal to take on another person’s feelings and deeply grieve.

  • What role does the internet serve in impacting this innate and inevitable human experience of grief?
  • How is the media impacting the human psyche as it relates to compassion and suffering?
  • What is compassion fatigue and what does emotional intelligence have to do with all of this?

Today we are going to discuss these points, as well as dive into a topic called: COMPASSION FATIGUE. We will explore grieving, emotional intelligence, and action items for emotional regulation.

In Northern Tanzania, lives the Hadza (Had-zeh) people, also known as Hadzabe, believed to be the oldest tribe the world has known. Comprised about 1,300 tribe members and they maintain a traditional hunter-gatherer way of living. Their heritage spans thousands of years and is passed on through story-telling, and their way of life has remained fairly unchanged over the last 100 years (Crittenden, 2008). When there is loss, grief, and suffering, the well-ingrained traditional disciplines, which are generally understood by the community members, direct a response that cultivates comradery and comfort. Studies have shown that, despite the dire circumstances that the Hadza people endure, overall, they report more positive emotions of happiness, contentment, and motivation as compared to control subjects (Reid, 2019).

Let’s examine a juxtaposition with an example from my private practice. I have changed the names and specifics and so any resemblance of anyone you know is purely coincidental.

Susan resided in a New York flat. She enjoyed a six-figure salary, lived in a nice part of town, and was close to her family and friends.

Susan’s morning tradition comprised of waking with her alarm, and while still lying in bed she read through her social media, emails, and chosen news outlet sources. She scrolled through posts from her thousand friends on social media, caught up on emails related to her clinical practice, read dozens of news articles hand-picked by her chosen news sources, and clicked off the pop-up ads and images that inundated her morning ritual.

By the time she had been awake for 15 minutes, Susan had been exposed to the happenings of thousands of people on her social media account, email updates, and news outlets. With every refresh, there is more and more information.

Susan identifies as a “helper.” She works as an infectious disease specialist at a downtown hospital, and endeavors to support her friends, family, and patients with the same excellence of compassion and care. This is not so easy, however. Being constantly inundated with opportunities to serve, Susan often finds herself thinking about the “suffering of the world” and reports that it keeps her up at night. Each person she comes into contact with requires a novel and yet compassionate approach to their circumstances, and it can often feel like she is aiming at ever-growing numbers of moving targets.

Exhausted, burned out, depressed, and unable to sleep, Susan came to my office looking for answers. She did not understand why she felt overwhelmed all of the time. She had a good life. She enjoyed her practice, her relationships, and she achieved great meaning in her day-to-day interactions. She thrived off of being a “helper” and was concerned that her exhaustion was draining her motivation.

If we compare the sense of well-being between Susan and the members of the Hadza tribe, it would make more sense for Susan to enjoy greater happiness. Right? She enjoyed a stable life, a vast community, and all of her basic needs were met, and then some. The members of the Hadza tribe had to worry about day-to-day survival and they did not have access to modern amenities.

But research has shown quite the opposite. Susan by nature of her existence as an American in the 21st century is at a significantly greater risk of depression and anxiety than the African Hadza tribal members.

Why is that?

This brings us back to our original questions:

What role does the internet serve in impacting this innate and inevitable human experience of grief?

How is the media impacting the human psyche as it relates to compassion and suffering?

What is compassion fatigue and what does emotional intelligence have to do with all of this?

Let’s start with the impact of the internet on the human experience of grief.

There are two profound observations related to the internet and grief:

First: There more access to world tragedy. While the Hadza people communicate by walking over to their comrade and speaking, we live in a digital age characterized by a constant thread of clickbait, endless sensationalism from digital media outlets, and an unmitigated onslaught of news from anyone with an internet connection. To summarize: We are dealing with a lot more access to grief and suffering than any previous generation on the planet.

The second observation is that we are exposed to the grieving of many different cultures. Some cultures follow the stuff-it-and-move-on philosophy, while other cultures’ traditions involve community members weeping and beating their breasts in the streets. While smaller communities may rally together to support each other guided by tradition and mutual understanding, we now live in a world where the traditions around grief and loss may be drastically different.

How is the media impacting the human psyche as it relates to compassion and suffering?

The human mind is simply not built to process all of the data thrown at it.  It is well established that the news can cause anxiety. For example, a study published back in 2007 in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine observed that “state anxiety and total mood disturbances increased after watching a 15-minute random newscast.” (Szabo, 2007)

Research has also shown that the more “friends” a person has on social media, the greater their risk is for depression and anxiety (Robinson, 2020).

As a result, more and more individuals are suffering from the same type of symptoms that Susan is, and it’s called: Compassion Fatigue.

Often linked with the term burn-out, compassion fatigue is characterized by emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that occurs as a result of overexposure to the suffering of others.

One of the key differences between Susan and the members of the fairly sequestered Hadza people is that Susan’s exposure to the suffering of others is amplified by her social media habits, her news sources, emails, her job, and her identity as a “helper.”

The human psyche may respond to compassion fatigue in a multitude of different ways. From rage and abusiveness to panic and anxiety, or difficulty sleeping, vicarious grief, and even total sublimation—which is when our impulses are transferred into other behaviors like over-working, or dissociative activities like binge-watching television programs.

Our emotional barrels are too full.

Imagine it this way: Each person has a metaphorical whiskey barrel. The barrel represents the amount of bandwidth an individual has. Some start the day with a fresh and empty barrel, while others barely have any room for more to be added.

Susan started every single morning by filling her barrel up. She picked up her phone, and while her boundaries are down, fogged over by a sleepy mind, she begins her daily ritual.

With technology connected to billions of people worldwide all competing for eyeballs and ears using clickbait, sensationalism, controversial headlines, fear-mongering, and a never-ending stream of information, the amount of emotional data being thrown our way is akin to a firehose of water the face.

Then Susan goes to work where she interacts with hundreds of doctors, nurses, staff members, patients, and family members. Navigating grief, disappointment, victory, loss, religious needs, cultural expectations, and all on a limited clock, Susan’s social media account grows, her use is being pixeled by internet marketers, her email list is ever-growing and she is missing texts and phone calls.

Compassion fatigue does not discriminate across gender and culture, but there are variables that will put you at greater risk, they are:

  • The more use of social media, the more consumption of the news, and the greater number of hours you spend consuming media, the greater risk.
  • Feelings of powerlessness and isolation from other people put you at greater risk.
  • People who identify as “helpers,” (see Enneagram Type 2).
  • People who have the MAOA gene, otherwise known as the warrior gene
  • People who have endured trauma (whether emotional, mental or physical)
  • Those who are more sensitive to vicarious trauma
  • Those whose loved ones are at risk
  • Those whose community is at risk

If you lean towards being empathetic, you are at a greater risk of compassion fatigue.

It is normal to take on other people’s feelings and grief deeply. In fact, it is a useful trait to be sensitive and open to what’s going on. It allows you to connect more deeply with another person and authentically respond to others, and this trait may be useful and helpful to the culture.

But if we don’t open and close the windows to the world mindfully, we will continue to put our barrels out in the flood of pain, suffering, drama, and grief, and it will become too much.

Assuming it already hasn’t.

Do you have compassion fatigue? Here are the top 7 signs of compassion fatigue:

Signs of compassion fatigue

  1. Feeling burned out (signs of burn out)
  2. Fatigue (fight flight freeze)
  3. Anger (fight flight freeze)
  4. Anxiety (fight flight freeze)
  5. Depression (fight flight freeze)
  6. Low motivation (fight flight freeze)
  7. Difficulty sleeping

So… you might be asking yourself: What’s next? Is this podcast just another example of the news bringing you down?

Babe… I’d never let you down like that. I have good news. Very good news.

You can feel like yourself again.

You can care very deeply without taking on the weight of the world.

You can still be a good person while caring for others.

You can practice compassion and radical empathy WHILE protecting your heart.

There is one powerful and effective solution to compassion fatigue, burn-out, indifference or whatever you want to call it.

It is: Development of emotional intelligence (EI or EU).

In our remaining time together I am going to answer the final remaining question: Does emotional intelligence have to do with all of this? And I am going to give you action steps for emotional regulation.

There are 3 key components in defining emotional intelligence:

  • Being able to positively understand and manage your own emotions, identify your values, and behave in ways that allow you to prevent and/or relieve stress.
  • Possessing the ability to emphasize with and communicate with others, diffuse conflict, and overcome challenges.
  • The ability to turn your intention into actions and follow through on your commitments.

In addition to better self-regulation and more fulfilling relationships, research has shown that emotional intelligence is an antidote to emotional fatigue, burn out, or compassion fatigue (Liu L, 2018).

Emotional intelligence can be improved with self-awareness, emotional regulation, and regular practice of these skills.

I have summarized the 8 Key Skills for Emotional Intelligence, and 8 Action Items for Emotional Regulation. Let’s dive in together.

The 8 Key Skills for Emotional Intelligence

  • Moment: Practice being in the moment, use emotions honestly and with integrity.
    • Here, now, awareness
    • Notice your six senses
    • Label your thoughts and feelings “is this residual from the past?” “Is this worry about the future?”
    • Remember our study from the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine? This same article demonstrated that the state anxiety and other mood disturbances from news exposure were counteracted by either a 15- minute progressive relaxation or a 15-minute lecture (controlled) (Szabo, 2007).
  • Language: Learn the language of emotions.
    • Others’ emotional appraisal/ Putting yourselves in their shoes: How might X be feeling right now? If you don’t know, you might ask!
    • Read body language: Learn the science of body language. For example, what does X do when she is feeling insecure, what are some of GOTTMAN’S examples of “turning towards”?
    • Examine for inferred information “Listen to what I mean not what I say”
    • Zoom in: What is X’s experience in this moment?
    • Zoom out: What else is going on in X’s life right now that might be impacting their behavior/ words/ feelings right now?
  • Empathy: Practice radical empathy
    • Follow the philosophy of Carl Rogers, who believed: Each person is doing the best they can with what they have, how do my behaviors and choices affect others.
    • This is not a scapegoat or enabling but it is an act of mercy that can accompany accountability.
  • Data: Emotions are data (about others and ourselves), there is no bad emotion
  • Reflection: Practice self-examination, self-appraisal
    • CBT and DBT exercises, abundance of this in ACT method
    • See a therapist
    • Learn about yourself
  • Problem-Solving: Identify what you can control and problem solve, and let go of what you cannot control.
  • Fact-check: Practice reality checking in your thoughts, attend to them thoughtfully before you act.
    • 5 of the most common thought errors:
      • Fortune telling
      • Emotional reasoning
      • All-or-nothing thinking
      • Discounting the positive/ mental filter
      • Shoulding/ musterbation
    • Boundaries: Identify personal limits and boundaries:
      • Conversations: What things am I okay talking about and what am I not okay talking about?
      • Time: Where do I draw the limit in terms of time with others or time alone with myself
      • With self (put things in a box)
      • With others (house of boundaries)
      • Information: How much of the news should I watch? When? What sources? How much screen time should I limit myself to?

The 8 Actionable Items for Emotional Regulation

  • DO Self-Care: Intentional time for self-care; off screens, away from people, meditate, breathing, crafts, coloring book, intentionally schedule this in.
  • PRACTICE, practice, practice: It takes 120 days to become a habit.
  • BUILD YOUR Forcefield: Practice Your Forcefield strategies
  • RELEASE your shit: When you’re going from green to yellow or yellow to red, you have to release it intentionally or it’s going to come out involuntarily. Create a release plan.
  • Nicole’s Favorite Emotional regulation Exercises:
    • Box Technique
    • Boats Exercise
    • Grounding exercises
    • Mindful Window Exercise
    • Adult coloring
    • Mindful spoon-sharing

Susan made several key changes in her life and today, she is able to love deeply, care powerfully, and is more effective both personally and professionally. Her exhaustion is improving, but she still struggles at times with the impulse to over-extend herself emotionally. This is something that she will continue to practice.

When asked what was the most impactful change she made was, she said it was to create boundaries on her internet use. She still keeps up with the news and her friends, but she no longer reads the internet in bed and has blocked off intentional time for her screen use.

What is one change that you can make starting today?

One of the gifts I have received by studying the Hadza tribe is the reminder that having a tribe is profoundly valuable. Surrounding yourself with people who understand you, your needs, your culture, your beliefs, and your history is a gift that cannot be replicated.

Did you know that we have a Facebook community? If you struggle with compassion fatigue or burn out, or anxiety, you don’t have to be alone.

Today we explored the impacts of the media on the human psyche and we compared it to the traditional lifestyle of the Hadza tribe. We learned that compassion fatigue is significantly exacerbated by the media and that emotional intelligence is an antidote to the suffering of the compassionate without stealing our morality and humanity. Lastly, we took a look into 8 key skills for emotional intelligence and 8 action items for emotional regulation.

If you resonated with anything we talked about today, or if you have questions or comments, find us on Facebook and let us know!

 

References:

Alyssa Crittenden and Frank Marlowe (2008) Allomaternal Care among the Hadza of Tanzania. Human Nature: An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective 19(3): 249-262.

Reid G. Disentangling What We Know About Microbes and Mental Health. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2019;10:81. Published 2019 Feb 15. doi:10.3389/fendo.2019.00081. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6384226/

Lawrence Robinson and Melinda Smith, M.A. Social Media and Mental Health. Last updated: January 2020. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/social-media-and-mental-health.htm

Szabo A, Hopkinson KL. Negative psychological effects of watching the news in the television: relaxation or another intervention may be needed to buffer them! Int J Behav Med. 2007;14(2):57-62.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17926432

Liu L1, Xu P1, Zhou K1, Xue J1, Wu H2. Mediating role of emotional labor in the association between emotional intelligence and fatigue among Chinese doctors: a cross-sectional study.  BMC Public Health. 2018 Jul 16;18(1):881. doi: 10.1186/s12889-018-5817-7.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30012126

 

Articles for Further Reading:

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Whenever considering changing your protocol whether it includes a change of medications, supplements, diet or lifestyle, always speak with your primary care physician first. Dr. Nicole Cain consults with clients locally and internationally. Dr. Nicole Cain ND MA has helped countless people take back control of their lives, and she can help you. To set up a complimentary consultation, call our office or visit https://drnicolecain.com/getting-started to schedule online.
Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational video e-courses, books, and exclusive free Facebook group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.