The big idea: is compassion fatigue real? | Psychology

The big idea: is compassion fatigue real? | Psychology

If you believe some commentators, we’re in the midst of a compassion crisis, with a particularly brutal daily news cycle taking its toll on our reserves of sympathy. The more suffering we see, the less we care, as we mentally switch off from others’ pain. The result may even be that we struggle to feel as much concern for people close at hand when they come to us for support; we end up feeling numb to any expression of emotion.

“The whole world is at risk for ‘compassion fatigue,’” Time magazine declared recently. And while occasionally disengaging might seem like a sensible form of self-protection, the prospect of losing any sense of concern for others over the longer term would be a disaster. But is this an inevitable consequence of paying attention to the realities of the world around us? Are there ways to avoid it?

Compassion fatigue is by now a well-documented phenomenon. It was first noted among psychotherapists and medical staff, who often report feeling their compassion dwindling with repeated exposure to patients’ trauma. There can be no doubt that the extraordinary stresses of care work put you at high risk of exhaustion, and compassion fatigue could be a symptom of burnout. As the Time article demonstrates, however, the term is now used to describe people’s apathy in many other contexts, including their response to the news.

The idea that passive exposure to suffering can deplete our empathy does find some support in the psychological literature. One study found that participants who watched distressing adverts from organisations such as Unicef were subsequently less willing to help a cancer charity, for instance. This research neglected to control one important factor, however: people’s expectations. That may have been a big oversight. According to one fascinating new study, compassion fatigue is often the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy related to our beliefs about the brain’s resources. By recognising this effect, we can instantly increase our resilience.

The role of mindset in compassion fatigue should not be surprising. Our beliefs powerfully influence how we behave and what we’re capable of. Consider willpower. Some people believe that their focus and self-control can be easily depleted; you can use it up over the course of the day. This is the “limited mindset”. Others see the practice of willpower as being inherently energising: the more they stick to their goals and avoid temptation, the easier it is to keep going. This is the “non-limited mindset”. Laboratory experiments and observational studies show that people with a non-limited mindset are more likely to stick to a fitness regime after a stressful day at work, while those with a limited mindset might crash out and eat junk food in front of the TV.

Might the same kind of expectation effect apply to our compassion for others? That was the question that psychologists Izzy Gainsburg and Julia Lee Cunningham attempted to explore in a series of carefully controlled studies.

Their first task was to develop a survey that measures the compassion mindset. They settled on the following statements, which participants had to rate according to how much they agreed with them: a) Feeling compassion for others exhausts your resources, which you need to refuel afterwards; b) After feeling sincere compassion for others, your emotional energy is depleted; c) Feeling compassion is emotionally energising, and afterward you are able to immediately start feeling compassion towards other people, too; d) Even after feeling deep compassion, you can continue to feel compassion towards others.

If you agree more with the first two statements, you have a limited compassion mindset; if you agree more with the second two, you have a non-limited one.

Gainsburg and Cunningham first asked participants to view nine pictures showing illness, war and mistreated animals, and report their feelings about each one. As predicted, people with the limited mindset tended to feel their compassion declining over time, while those with the non-limited mindset maintained the level of empathy they started out with.

To confirm their result, Gainsburg and Cunningham performed a study of more than 1,000 people at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. These were days full of heartbreak and exposure to daily accounts of pain and suffering. Over the four-month study period, those with the limited mindset felt their compassion had dwindled, along with their motivation to help others. Those with the non-limited mindset saw no such change.

We may learn these mindsets early in life, but they are not set in stone. Gainsburg and Cunningham’s participants, for instance, listened to a podcast in which doctors described their days on a Covid-19 ward. “My compassion for my patients has carried me through this,” one said. “I almost feel like I’m a more compassionate doctor with my last patient of the day than with my first – it’s as if my compassion has a life of its own, growing stronger with each patient I see.” Hearing these positive models nudged participants towards the non-limited mindset, allowing them to feel more compassion for longer.

Given these findings, I can’t help but wonder if talking and worrying about compassion fatigue without factoring in the expectation effect could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereas knowing that a lot depends on your mindset could change the way we consume the news for the better. Without turning away from distressing events, we could make a special effort to focus our attention on the stories of the people who are striving to improve the situation: the charity workers who risk their lives to take aid into war zones, or the first responders who maintain their composure in the face of a terrorist attack. Among the daily reminders of suffering, they can help us to remember that the limits to our capacity for compassion and care are often self-imposed.

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David Robson is the author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life (Canongate)..

Further Reading

The Keys to Kindness by Claudia Hammond (Canongate, £16.99)

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl (Rider, £14.99)

The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert (Little, Brown, £14.99)

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