Life is pretty stressful right now. The global pandemic is preparing to enter its third year. Parents, teachers, students, and administrators have felt the strain of trying to navigate shutdowns, virtual/hybrid school, return to school, COVID protocols, and so much more. For many people, the last two years have felt like a near-constant barrage of bad news and unknowns.
This constant bad news and stress can cause many people to develop empathy fatigue. While empathy fatigue was once more commonly seen in medical professionals, therapists, and social workers, the pandemic has seen more and more educators suffering from empathy fatigue.
Concerns over the safety and well-being of their students, trying to juggle taking care of their own families and teach while in lockdown, fears about the return to school and their own health and well-being, and dealing with the jarring reality of the behavior of students who have spent the better part of two years without interacting with peers.
Some days, it feels like all too much.
What is Empathy Fatigue?
The term empathy fatigue was coined by Mark Stebnicki, a professor in the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation at East Carolina University, following his work with victims following the 1998 school shooting in Jonesboro, AR: “Empathy fatigue results from a state of psychological, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual and occupational exhaustion that occurs as the [teachers’] own wounds are continually revisited by their [students’] life stories of chronic illness, disability, trauma, grief and loss” (Shallcross, 2013). This continued exposure to secondary trauma can take a toll on educators emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
A result of this on-going trauma– especially when a person feels powerless to do anything about it– is often numbness. This numbness is a defense mechanism. It is a way for your body and mind to signal the need to pause, zoom out, and take care of yourself. If not addressed, empathy fatigue can eventually lead to depression.
Signs of Empathy Fatigue
In order to keep empathy fatigue at bay, it is important to be aware of the ways symptoms of empathy fatigue can show up. Symptoms of empathy fatigue can manifest both physically and emotionally.
Physical symptoms can include an inability to concentrate; headaches; upset stomach; difficulty sleeping; feeling exhausted all the time; changes in appetite; relationship conflicts; and avoiding work or other activities.
Emotional symptoms can include feeling disconnected or numb; lack of energy to care about other things going on around you; feeling overwhelmed, powerless, and/or hopeless; obsessive thoughts about the suffering of others; anger or irritability; depression or sadness; and self-blame.
Being aware of the ways that emotional fatigue can manifest allows us to start the work of combating it.
Easing Empathy Fatigue
So, how can a person ease their empathy fatigue when there seems to be an endless stream of bad news and terrible things happening in our world? Through awareness, balance, and connection with others.
Awareness– We often try to push negative emotions away as soon as we feel them. Our brains don’t like discomfort and often go into overdrive trying to avoid them. Using strategies like “name it to tame it” will help increase our awareness of our feelings. When a feeling arises, note what that feeling is—“I am feeling scared,” “I am feeling angry,” “I am feeling overwhelmed.” Then take time to sit with the feeling you’ve just acknowledged. Ask yourself why you feel the way you do, and instead of stuffing the feeling down, have a conversation with yourself about the feeling and its causes. Be gentle with yourself and practice self-compassion as much as possible.
Balance– While it is hard to find perfect balance in this world, it is important to create some balance to your personal and professional lives. Take time to look at your work-life balance. Are you able to “turn it off” and head home for the day without continuing to focus on issues at work? Do you have interests and hobbies outside of work? Are you eating well, taking time to move your body, and getting enough sleep? Do you need to set some emotional boundaries to protect your energy while still allowing you to remain compassionate, empathetic, and supportive? Allow yourself the space to find a good balance in order to keep from sinking further into empathy fatigue.
Connection– The human brain is wired for connection and we need to find ways to connect with others in authentic ways. In this new world of social distancing, it can often feel challenging to find true connection, but the more you can work to foster connection with others, the better you will feel. Call a friend or hop on a zoom to chat about life. Talking about your feelings with a good friend (or a licensed professional) can help you process them while fostering the human connection our brains need (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). Additionally, practicing compassion towards others can help you feel more connected with your fellow humans. While the bad news and problems seem unsurmountable, we encourage you to practice acts of compassion and kindness towards others. These don’t need to be grand gestures, but rather small acts that allow you to feel connection with others and to feel less like there is nothing you can do to help.
Creating opportunities to care for yourself while also caring for those around you will greatly help with empathy fatigue. Discussing your feelings, making time for self-care, and connecting with others allow you to feel self-compassion and to continue to feel true empathy for those who need it.
Looking for some ways to practice self-compassion and create connection? Visit our free resources page to download our Guide to Staying Connected to Self and Others and other resources on self-compassion for adults and students.
Cleveland Clinic. (2021, June 25). Empathy fatigue: How stress and trauma can take a toll on you. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/empathy-fatigue-how-stress-and-trauma-can-take-a-toll-on-you
Shallcross, L. (2013, January 21). Q&A: Empathy fatigue. Counseling Today. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://ct.counseling.org/2013/01/qa-empathy-fatigue/