With every buzz and notification from my phone, a little part of my soul dies.
If I check my Twitter, I’ll see that The New York Times just posted about how a doctor is warning people that the pandemic of COVID-19 means that “the sky is falling.” If I look at my Whatsapp, I’ll see a message about how the economy is crashing and burning. If I look at BBC News, I’ll see that the reported worldwide death toll of COVID-19 is now over 13,000.
I wish I could throw my phone into the ocean and never look back, but that wouldn’t really solve the problem. It’s not as if I signed up for these notifications against my will. I choose to live my life cowering in fear of the alerts that constantly flood my phone screen, instead of in blissful — yet futile and dangerous — ignorance. With every headline that I read, with every panicked tweet and outraged Facebook post, my feelings of compassion and empathy slowly but surely decline from an overwhelming crescendo to a flatline of indifference.
I must confess that I experience apathy. Does that make me an evil, unfeeling monster, unaffected by the trauma and turmoil experienced by others around me? Am I losing sight of my own humanity and ability to fight back in the face of injustice, or am I simply exhausted, defeated by the unstoppable torrents tragedy?
After all, I’m powerless to stop any of it. And as much as I hate to admit it, I find it difficult to invest in any of these horrific stories on a long-term basis. Once the news stops paying attention to one thing and moves on to the next, I find that I often do too.
Cynicism and hopelessness are now inherent in the way that I approach current events. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that no matter how much I care about a certain issue — no matter how much I try to remain up-to-date and informed — it will never truly be enough. Just trying to fathom the sheer scale of human suffering associated with any world disaster is enough to send me into a deep, spiraling hole of existential dread.
Do you, dear reader, happen to feel the same? Don’t worry, it’s not just us.
Psychologists call this “compassion fatigue.” The American Institute of Stress characterizes it as a state of physical and mental exhaustion that stems from prolonged secondary exposure to trauma. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed that certain professions such as health care providers and social workers must maintain a degree of emotional distance between themselves and those they are caring for, because experiencing too much compassion risks their mental health and ability to provide effective treatment.
The condition was once found mostly among caregivers, but is now a growing affliction as the rest of us seem to have become front-and-centre to tragedies that multiply a millionfold, unable to gauge where our feelings of empathy end and our ability to act begins. As our hands are often tied, we end up feeling paralyzed yet culpable due to our complacency.
The toll of empathy in the information age
The diagnosis of compassion fatigue is accompanied by a list of symptoms that may be all too familiar to those who regularly check the news — feelings of apathy, depression, denial, or hopelessness, perhaps topped off by difficulty sleeping and mental or physical fatigue.
With the recent COVID-19 outbreak, the news has almost become another appendage — an extension of our own brains. The virus has effectively brought the whole world to its knees, sequestering millions at home and tethering us to our television and phone screens.
With every news update, every statistic, every social media post, the daunting feelings of panic and fear grow stronger and stronger in our minds. It seems as though all anyone can talk about is the pandemic — indeed, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to focus on much else. Unfortunately, the crisis poses a looming threat to both the physical and mental health of almost the entire human population.
As a generation, overexposure to stories of extreme proportions like these — stories of war, death, and destruction — has led to mass desensitization and an inability to process the true ramifications of such events on our mental well-being. The magnitude of human suffering is too much for us to comprehend; our brains are unable to imagine the scale of it.
This leads us to another issue: information overflow. There are so many tragedies begging for our attention every single waking moment that we have lost the ability to judge which issues demand our active attention and compassion.
Often, the physical distance between ourselves and any given crisis diminishes our ability to understand it. At a certain point, it all becomes arbitrary. Tragedies accumulate and meld into one another like grains of sand, losing all meaning and magnitude as mass attention shifts from one horror to the next in a matter of seconds.
I spoke with Razan Mahmoud, a second-year Rotman student at U of T, to better understand compassion fatigue in the social media age. Mahmoud explained to me that she regularly tries to keep up with the news, although it often leads to her experiencing frustration and hopelessness.
“I’m going about my day, and I decide to open Twitter. And that depresses me so much because I see what’s trending and usually it’s some sort of crisis somewhere in the world,” she said.
Not only is keeping oneself informed difficult, it is overwhelming; it becomes too difficult to appreciate the magnitude of so many afflictions all at once and decide what takes higher priority. After all, how do we evaluate the importance of one form of suffering over another? It’s impossible, and an inevitable hierarchy emerges.
On Twitter, people tend to try and fight back against coverage of issues with high visibility by highlighting all the other tragedies going on around the world. The question then becomes: if we can fight for and care about this tragedy, why can’t we provide the same visibility and passion for all the others?
Herein emerges a new question: how can news corporations, activist groups, and non-governmental organizations capture the attention of a public so desensitized by constant exposure to disaster? How can more obscure causes gain traction and visibility on a wider scale when so many people are overwhelmed and fatigued by the news?
Well, that’s how we end up with ‘trauma porn’ — the media has to capitalize upon tragedies and horror in order to garner attention and empathy from their viewers. This is for the purpose of garnering more clicks and higher audience engagement for financial profit or to push a political agenda.
As a result, the threshold for what shocks and horrifies us has become unreasonably high. The ethics of diffusing extreme and often graphic images of trauma are somewhat ambiguous. On one hand, it may be seen as exploitative of those who are suffering. While on the other, such drastic tactics have almost become necessary in order for an issue to gain any visibility or coverage at all.
Trauma porn begs for our empathy, time, and attention, lest we admit to being uncaring, apathetic monsters. However, empathy does not guarantee morality, nor does it demand real action. It may simply lead us further away from any solutions; compassion fatigue cripples rather than empowers the masses.
To Zein Idris, a second-year psychology and health sciences student, the inescapable reality of news is taxing. “For me, coming from Lebanon, where there’s a huge political and economic crisis at the moment, I even feel desensitized to the news about my own country. I can’t even stay up to date about the news there because I’m constantly being bombarded by Facebook notifications, text messages, and videos.”
Information can be empowering. Social media increases the accessibility of knowledge, making it an invaluable resource for educating the masses and shedding light upon issues that would otherwise remain unseen or ignored.
Social media can undoubtedly be seen as the pinnacle of modern democracy; it provides a platform for the masses, amplifies the voices of the oppressed, and enables us to engage in productive debate and to find solutions. Furthermore, its role in actively controlling and quelling the spread of COVID-19 continues to be indispensable and paramount. The difficulty is determining how we may achieve a balance between awareness and information overload.
How to address compassion fatigue
Forgive yourself. The truth is that feeling guilty because of your apathy, your inability to solve all the world’s problems, or to do ‘enough’ is not productive, and may actually do more harm than good. Compassion on its own is one of the virtues of humankind, but too much of it, or focusing it in the wrong direction, can quickly cause one’s mental state to devolve. Remind yourself that it’s okay to not be able to fix things that are out of your hands.
Confronting reality can be helpful, and furthermore, we must accept that, as individuals constrained by time, space, and socioeconomic reality, we only have the capacity to do so much. It is not selfishness, but merely realism, that compels us to accept what we can and cannot fix. What we can do is recognize the areas in which we can contribute, and channel our efforts there. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, for example, each of us can do our part in minimizing harm by remaining indoors, self-isolating, social distancing, and being compassionate to those around us.
Likewise, it’s important to know when to switch off. I am not dismissing the importance of being informed, nor am I telling anyone to ignore the news — that would simply be promoting ignorance. However, it’s okay to implement healthy boundaries. There’s no need to read every single Twitter update about a crisis, nor are you obligated to be connected to the news every hour of the day.
Finally, express gratitude. There is an insurmountable amount of suffering that is inherent to the human condition. It’s easy to get caught up in all the worst sides of human existence. But it’s not all doom and gloom — for every story of a wildfire or impending anarchy, there’s also a story of hope and resilience. Find something that reminds you there is good in the world, whatever that may be, and focus on it. You’d be surprised what a difference it makes.