Ever turned on the news, only to be confronted by a seemingly endless list of crises and disasters, and felt…nothing? If so, then you know what empathy fatigue is, even if the name is unfamiliar.
Empathy fatigue, also known as empathy burnout, is a feeling of desensitization, numbness, or a perceived inability to care about suffering or tragedy. Empathy fatigue is caused by overexposure to stress or trauma.
What Does Empathy Fatigue Look Like?
In a sense, empathy fatigue can be thought of as a psychological coping mechanism. When bad things happen—such as a pandemic, or natural disaster, or school shooting—we feel shock, fear, outrage, sadness, and more. But all of those feelings require emotional energy, and like all other forms of energy, emotional energy is a finite resource if it’s not replenished.
On top of that, repeated exposure to any emotion, even those as powerful as shock and outrage, tends to increase our tolerance to those feelings.
Empathy fatigue looks different for everyone. Often, it’s characterized by feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness, feelings of disconnection or isolation, or sadness. Empathy fatigue can even have physical or behavioral symptoms.
Who Is Affected by Empathy Fatigue?
Anyone who is exposed to repeated stress or trauma is at risk for empathy fatigue. Recently, however, it’s primarily been associated with healthcare workers and first responders, who have been under a tremendous amount of strain and witnessed an unfathomable amount of suffering over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How To Deal With Empathy Fatigue
If left unchecked, empathy fatigue can snowball into depression. For that reason, it’s important to notice when you’re feeling empathy fatigue and take steps to address or mitigate it.
Experts point to mindfulness techniques as a good way to fight empathy fatigue. Mindfulness, which emphasizes awareness and non-attachment to thoughts, has been shown to increase compassion and decrease anxiety.
In addition, it’s also important to take care of yourself by practicing self-care, sticking to a healthy work-life balance as much as possible, and making time to connect with loved ones. While many of the things in this world are out of our control, keeping our emotional batteries charged ensures that when bad (and good) things happen, we can show up the way we want to.
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