The rise of 'compassion fatigue'

“Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react."

by Daisy Schofield
30 March 2022, 7:00am

Julia Tymoshenko, age 22, is currently in Lviv after fleeing her home in Kyiv when the Russian invasion began. Up until now, she has received an outpouring of supportive messages on Instagram – where she’s been documenting everyday life amid war in Ukraine – from people around the world sharing what they’re doing to help. But she’s worried this could soon change. “The more people normalise death, and all the horror they are seeing, they will not experience as much urge to help,” she says. “I’m worried that people will lose interest… and start looking at the situation not from a point of empathy.”

Her fears are not unfounded. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rages on, people watching the war from afar are reporting on social media that they’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious and powerless, to such a degree that it has become debilitating. It’s a phenomenon Susan Sontag describes in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), an essay examining the limits of empathy towards images of suffering. “Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react,” Sontag wrote. “Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb.”

There’s a clinical name for what Sontag is describing: it’s called compassion fatigue – a condition characterised by emotional and physical exhaustion, leading to a diminished ability to empathise or feel compassion for others. It was first coined (in 1992) in the context of medical workers, where ​​over-exposure to trauma can lead to health problems for the nurses and worsened outcomes for patients. But it’s since also been applied to the general population in the age of omnipresent social media, to describe the feeling of becoming so saturated with distressing scenes, that a kind of psychic numbing occurs. 

But as knowledge of the term has grown, posts related to fatigue, emotional contagion or secondary traumatic stress (especially those insinuating it’s okay to a degree to block out the news if it’s difficult to deal with) have elicited some understandably negative responses for shifting the focus away from those suffering in Ukraine, toward the people watching in relative comfort from afar. There has been considerable backlash against people using social media to “to wad[e] into a conflict” and “place themselves in the centre of a story that isn’t theirs to tell”. An article published in the Huffington Post offering tips on how to deal with vicarious trauma – from setting boundaries to keeping a normal routine – was met with similar criticisms of “narcissism”, and for centring the west.

Undoubtedly, ‘trauma’ has become a buzzword over the past few years, one which is loosely applied and tends to flatten complex issues. And, there have been some interventions on Ukraine – particularly by celebrities and influencers – that have felt tone-deaf, to say the least. But the impact seeing horrifying scenes has should not be diminished as purely a symptom of main character syndrome. Vicarious trauma can have serious consequences. In fact, studies have shown that media exposure to collective trauma is associated with acute stress and post-traumatic stress symptoms. The reason it’s important to recognise this is not simply for selfish reasons, or as a reminder that ‘we need to practise self-care’. Rather, it's because when compassion fatigue sets in, it can impair our ability to help, and make us lose sight of the scale of the devastation taking place.

It’s certainly not a new idea that the content people are consuming online can be harrowing – even if they’re not witnessing it IRL. We’ve seen this in the devastating psychological toll faced by Facebook moderators, many of whom developed PTSD on the job. Some experienced panic attacks, which continued after leaving the company, or were pushed to addiction, and far-right ideology. “Every day is a nightmare,” said Isabella Plunkett, a former Facebook moderator from Ireland who provided testimony last year about her experience of the job. “I’m now seeing the content I view in work in my dreams. I remember it, I experience it again, and it is horrible.”

Of course, these moderators were viewing the most extreme type of content over and over again. But the extent to which the rest of us will develop long term issues from traumatic imagery online is yet to be seen —  it’s worth noting though, that the secondary traumatic stress endured by moderators is something studies have identified in social media users more generally. “We’re just not designed to have that constant exposure to suffering and stimulation,” says Charles Chaffin, author of Numb: How the Information Age Dulls Our Senses and How We Can Get them Back. Chaffin likens it to the experience of heavy-pornography users, who are prone to feelings of anxiety and disconnection. “Threats in our amygdala are constantly being activated, so there’s obviously going to be an element of fatigue or numbness.” As Chaffin points out — citing a 2014 study on news videos of the Boston Marathon bombing — seeing suffering repeatedly via our TV or phone can, in some instances, actually make the experience feel worse than if we were there in person.

The reality is that bad news sells; it’s what keeps us doomscrolling on platforms that profit off our outrage. And in a similar fashion, if our feeds are overwhelmingly filled with people displaying extreme emotions – perhaps narcissism – that’s because it’s what the attention economy rewards. As Chaffin points out, our behaviours, and our response to crises, are far more at the whims of these platforms than we might like to believe. “We have let [social media platforms] manage us,” he says. “We have let them dictate our days, our moods, our heightened sense of threat.” 

That said, solutions to compassion fatigue which tell us to switch off from social media and the relentless news cycle can often feel like a callous avoidance of the situation. It’s valid to ask why, if people in Ukraine don’t have the luxury of looking away from the war, why should we? Given how embedded technology is in our lives, telling people to just ‘log off’ as a solution to manage compassion fatigue can feel unrealistic. Chaffin posits that instead of detoxing, a more sustainable solution might be to “work out, ‘How much do I need of this to be productive, well-informed; to be a compassionate human being?’” We might only need to consume 15 minutes of news a day, for example, and we'd come away with the same level of understanding and compassion compared to if we had scrolled for hours. 

Likewise, Julia says that people watching the war from afar should be able to “take breaks”, but she stresses the importance of “keeping the conversation going” – online and offline. “I post a lot of dark, really sad things, and I know that people are probably getting exhausted; vicarious trauma is a real thing,” she says. “So I want to ask people to take care of themselves, because feeling burned out from a day of binging the news won’t help us in any way.”

“What I encourage people [experiencing compassion fatigue] to do is educate themselves on the history, and the culture, of Ukraine, because that helps centre Ukrainians and a Ukrainian perspective in the world,” adds Julia. She advises supporting Ukrainian businesses, listening to Ukrainian music, and “doing something that paints Ukraine in this beautiful light that has always surrounded us before this war, because Ukraine is not just war. It’s an incredibly strong and beautiful country that everyone should visit and learn about.”

Having said that, treating compassion fatigue shouldn’t just be met with self-preservation. Compassion, by definition, is active, not passive. As Sontag writes: “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers… If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do… then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”

“People need to remember that there is no such thing as a small act of support,” says Julia. Donating money, for example, is one of the most effective ways to help. Julia stresses the importance of giving to local, grassroots organisations, or giving directly to friends and family in Ukraine who will know how to get the money to the people most in need. At the same time there’s a pressing need to reframe how we understand compassion fatigue, so that rather than ending in inertia or simply logging off, it becomes the alarm that jolts us into action. 

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