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Is compassion fatigue a legitimate concept?

Is compassion fatigue a legitimate concept?


According to some analysts, there is currently a shortage of compassion due to the harsh daily news cycle. Exposure to constant suffering can lead us to become desensitized and less empathetic towards others. This can even affect our ability to provide support to those closest to us, causing us to feel emotionally detached.

Recently, Time magazine warned that the entire globe is susceptible to experiencing “compassion fatigue.” Although it may seem logical to detach ourselves occasionally as a means of self-preservation, losing our ability to empathize with others over a prolonged period would be catastrophic. Is this an inevitable outcome of being aware of the world’s challenges? Are there strategies to prevent it?

The concept of compassion fatigue has been extensively studied. Initially observed among therapists and medical personnel, it is characterized by a decline in empathy after repeated exposure to patients’ traumatic experiences. The demanding nature of care work puts individuals at a heightened risk for burnout, with compassion fatigue being a possible indication. However, the term has been expanded to encompass indifference in various situations, such as people’s reactions to current events, as shown in the Time article.

The concept that simply being exposed to suffering can decrease our ability to empathize does have some backing in psychological studies. For example, one study observed that individuals who watched upsetting commercials from organizations like Unicef were less inclined to aid a cancer charity afterwards. However, this research failed to consider an important factor: people’s expectations. This oversight may have been significant. According to a recent study, feelings of compassion fatigue are often a result of a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding our beliefs about the brain’s capacity. By acknowledging this phenomenon, we can instantly boost our ability to cope with difficult situations.

The significance of mindset in relation to compassion fatigue is not surprising. Our beliefs greatly influence our actions and capabilities. Take willpower for example. Some individuals hold the belief that their focus and self-control can easily diminish over time, as it is a finite resource. This is known as the “limited mindset”. On the other hand, there are those who view willpower as inherently invigorating: the more they adhere to their goals and resist temptation, the easier it becomes to continue. This is referred to as the “non-limited mindset”. Various experiments and studies have shown that individuals with a non-limited mindset are more likely to stick to a fitness routine after a stressful day at work, while those with a limited mindset may give in and resort to eating unhealthy food while watching TV.

Is it possible that the expectation effect also plays a role in our empathy towards others? This was the inquiry that psychologists Izzy Gainsburg and Julia Lee Cunningham sought to investigate through a set of meticulously conducted experiments.

Their initial objective was to create a questionnaire that assesses one’s level of compassion. They ultimately decided on the below statements, which participants were asked to rank based on their level of agreement: a) Experiencing compassion for others depletes your own resources, which require replenishing; b) Sincere compassion for others can drain your emotional energy; c) Feeling compassion can be emotionally rejuvenating, allowing you to quickly extend compassion to others; d) One can still feel compassion for others even after experiencing deep levels of it.

If you tend to align with the first two statements, you possess a restricted perspective on compassion; if you lean towards the second two, you have an unrestricted mindset.

Gainsburg and Cunningham initially requested that participants view nine images depicting sickness, conflict, and abused animals, and express their emotions towards each one. As expected, individuals with a restricted mindset showed a decrease in compassion over time, while those with an unrestricted mindset maintained the same level of empathy they began with.

Gainsburg and Cunningham conducted a study during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, involving over 1,000 participants, to verify their findings. During this time, people were constantly exposed to stories of heartache and distress. The study spanned four months and revealed that those with a limited mindset experienced a decrease in compassion and desire to assist others, while those with a non-limited mindset did not experience any changes.

We can acquire these attitudes at a young age, but they are not permanent. For example, Gainsburg and Cunningham’s study involved participants listening to a podcast where doctors discussed their experiences working on a Covid-19 ward. One doctor shared, “My dedication to my patients has helped me get through this.” They noticed that their compassion towards patients increased with each patient they saw, even feeling more compassionate towards their last patient of the day compared to their first. Exposure to these positive role models influenced participants towards adopting a growth mindset, resulting in increased feelings of compassion for a longer period of time.

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 wrote the book titled “The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life” published by Canongate.

Further Reading

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

The book “Man’s Search for Meaning” written by Viktor E Frankl is available for purchase at a price of £14.99 from the publisher Rider.

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

Source: theguardian.com