In the initial days of the pandemic, the recovery rates seemed to be high and deaths reported much lower, we as citizens seemed to have coped with the lockdown. We made banana bread at home, dalgona coffee, and enjoyed the time spent with family. This was soon replaced with no boundaries at the workplace, more and more deaths due to the virus were reported, cases increased exponentially, the virus mutated and India was hit by a second wave. This has been horrific in more than one way.
During early 2020, sometime around February, I distinctly remember sitting at a cafe enjoying my coffee while reading a lot of incoming news from the international borders regarding Covid-19. The virus which was initially perceived to have been localized to China now seemed to have started impacting a handful of other countries with a handful of cases. Quite sporadically, by March 2020, most countries saw a rise in the number of cases, leading to a worldwide panic, people started hoarding ration and essentials in the anticipation of a lockdown.
A few weeks in, most countries including India were put under strict lockdown. Amidst the initial chaos and warnings, doctor friends suggested I take some precautions and not worry. However, fast forward to 2021, life has changed so significantly for everyone and most of us have even adapted to the major challenges brought on by this pandemic.
Many youngsters, actors, comedians, NGOs, and even doctors took to social media to offer help. Individuals were altruistic and went out of their way to find the drug Remdisiver, aid in arranging hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, doctors, meals for people stuck in home quarantines, and this extended to arranging burial spots in the cremation grounds. We were overwhelmed by grief and sorrow yet we tried to support one another. Things were so overwhelming for most of us that we wanted to help but we couldn’t. The empathy that pushed us to arrange for oxygen cylinders, started to fade with news of deaths, we felt angry with ourselves and people around us, we may have even started projecting it onto our family members. This lost empathy and compassion due to an overwhelming environment are often referred to as a phenomenon known as ‘Compassion Fatigue’.
In simple terms, compassion fatigue is the loss of empathy due to mental and physical exhaustion. It may or may not be accompanied by burnout and even sound similar to burnout but is different because the individual suffering from compassion fatigue feels a sudden loss of empathy and suffers from emotional issues such as anger outbursts, anxiety, irritation, dreads the thought of people along with physical changes such as increased stress headaches, weight loss, etc. During this time, the individual usually assumes that people are responsible for his sufferings.
Jiah, a 21-year-old college student, met me in June 2021. She is a bright young girl who had been volunteering at a Covid helpline center since April 2021 where she was doing her best to cater to the needs of individuals who needed aid in arranging ICU beds and Oxygen. This job had initially made her feel content but soon she was grief-stricken with the news of people dying in record numbers, reading or hearing news was triggering for her, even social media overwhelmed her with everyone seeking help. Every time she received a distress call, she would get afraid. She tried her best to help as efficiently as possible but in some cases by the time the hospital beds were arranged, she would find the distress caller’s family member had passed away. This happened multiple times during May 2021. She cursed herself for not being fast enough. When she found out that her dad had Covid by early June 2021, she was overcome with no emotion and felt exhausted, was unable to cry, easily angered, and felt that her mental health was on the decline and came to me to understand her mind. She thought this was due to her dad’s illness and the ineffectiveness of the colleagues at the helpline center that she is suffering so much. With a few sessions, Jiah improved and is doing well now. This is how compassion fatigue can look like. It can happen to teachers, nurses, doctors, psychologists, and often as a result of excessive trauma exposure.
Some of the ways to overcome Compassion Fatigue include:
Start by taking care of yourself: In airplanes, the initial instructions always state that in case of variation in air pressure, the oxygen masks will be deployed, first help yourself then the people around you. Similarly, in life, even if you are volunteering or taking on these tough jobs, ensure that you take care of your mental and physical well-being before catering to the needs of others. If you are doing well, you will be able to think clearer and help better. This will keep you motivated and feeling content.
Spend time improving your mental health: Our mental health can get impacted by stress. Being stressed is often a starting point, this can soon spiral into anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses. Learning effective stress management boasts our mental health. This can be done by spending time with nature, writing a journal or a gratitude journal, spending time with loved ones, exercising, meditating, etc. Find out your most effective way of stress management. This will help you improve your mental and emotional health.
Focus on what you can control: Pandemic has been a humbling time for most of us. We may have had the epiphany of the limited control we have in our lives. We may not be able to control the circumstances around us but reminding ourselves that our actions are under our control can help us focus and redirect our energies in constructive ways. For instance, students may not know when the pandemic will end and when they will return to school but they can focus on aspects like their studies, their sleep cycle, exercise regime and so on which are within their control.
Limit bad news: Compassion fatigue is a result of attending to bad news over some time without taking care of oneself. If you are getting impacted by bad news, limiting the engagement with the sources of bad news is one of the best ways to start, to focus on your mental well-being.
The pandemic is a collective trauma that we all are living in, it can make anyone experience compassion fatigue. Thus, taking care of oneself or seeking professional help would be best if you are unable to cope as well as you had expected.