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Psychological impacts of caring

The Psychological Cost of Caring: How to Overcome Compassion Fatigue Symptoms and Find Some Relief

As we look back on the past year, hopefully, there are a lot of things we can be grateful for.

However, at Kari Health we know that 2023 also presented many challenges. We found ourselves seeing one abominable news headline after another, and with photos filling our screens with scenes of war, division and conflict.

It can be tiring. When empathising with the struggle of those fleeing the Ukraine conflict, or watching helplessly as innocent people remain trapped in Gaza, to so many other conflicts and crises where women disproportionately bear the brunt of the consequences, can feel like too much for any reader.

Guilt, followed by disconnect and even apathy can be typical responses to being overloaded with these stories.

This article looks at what we can do and why we have these feelings, even if we have no direct contact with these atrocious events.

What we’ll be looking into:

  • How did we get here?
  • What is compassion fatigue – signs and symptoms
  • Is it worse for women?
  • What to do to ease these feelings

How did we get here?

It is time to start unpacking what so many of us are feeling right now. A good place to start might be: what has led to this?

Of course, it is important to remain up to date with major news events. They teach us about the world and important political affairs. But with this can come a feeling of guilt. Guilt because quite frankly… what could we possibly do to help?

When we feel like this, it is possible we might start consuming more and more news about the same topic, scrolling and scrolling on social media to find out the details, or maybe a shred of good news.

When this happens, if we are scrolling social media or watching TV in our living rooms or before sleeping at night, we are inviting the public world to take a permanent place in our private lives. This, research has shown us, is what makes social media such an effective medium to communicate crises.

But it can go too far.

With this level of saturation of bad news, we might end up disheartened, fatigued, and eventually, even apathetic.

Signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue

Trauma response can happen not only when you have been directly exposed to a traumatic event, but it might even happen when you are constantly exposed to the consequences of it happening elsewhere.

It might feel like it is a never-ending cycle of doom-scrolling. We wake up every day and there is a new reason to want to disconnect completely.

The Canadian Medical Association associates symptoms like feelings of helplessness, anxiety, withdrawal and even trouble sleeping and eating with compassion fatigue. Otherwise known as vicarious trauma, referencing the way that others’ pain can become your own, this is a response that might eventually lead to feeling disconnected with empathetic feelings for others.

Are women affected more by compassion fatigue?

As women, we know that empathy can be both a blessing and a curse.

Feminism asserts in many instances, such as within Kristina Lunz’s groundbreaking book The Future Of Foreign Policy Is Feminist, that war and conflict are inherently anti-feminist. That conflict at this level is a result of patriarchy, and as a result hurts women the most.

Indeed, the latest figures from the Palestinian Health Ministry show that around 70% of those killed or harmed in the ongoing Gaza conflict are women and children under 18.

One article covering the emotional response to the Gaza conflict, for example, makes particular reference to a singular photograph of a woman crying, and clutching her baby. Rather than making use of photos of destroyed buildings or rubble, in this instance, this emotional picture is used to resonate with the viewer on a human-interest scale. We might feel more moved by this than we would a burning building. Mothers, especially, might feel particularly distressed.

Not only this, but women face an everyday exhaustion gap anyway. This relates to the way in which women are taught to put on a brave face, work hard, and act like nothing is wrong all the time. This is wearing.

What to do about it?

So you have cared about international events, and you have cared about the state of humanity. But it feels too much. So, what is the problem?

Caring and empathising, without boundaries, is a form of emotional labour. This kind of emotional labour can tap into a tried and recognised pattern that women are all too familiar with. So what can you do?

#1: Put a cap on the scrolling

Without limits, social media, and even the news, can be a seemingly endless heartbreaking and negative chasm. Set time limits on your Apps. Actively search for positive news media outlets to balance out your content consumption. Remember that just because it is there, doesn’t mean it has to be searched out.

#2: Know what you’re reading

Frankly, there is a lot of ‘news’ out there which is misleading. A lot of information is unverified, which perpetuates the spread of misinformation. Try to read updates from justified sources, and official news outlets, rather than anonymous X (Twitter) profiles.

#3: Care for yourself, so that you can care about others

Self-care has more merits than we at Kari could even think to list down in one article. Primarily, however, is how it will have a positive effect on those around you, too. Amnesty International reminds us that compassion is not an unlimited resource, but it can be regenerated, after you take some time for yourself. If this sounds like something you relate to, read the rest of this very helpful Amnesty International advice sheet for dealing with compassion fatigue here.

Eventually, you will realise that you can regain empathy by actively working through your feelings of apathy.

However, this takes time, so it is important to be kind to yourself and keep in mind that the weight of caring does not fall only on your shoulders.

Try talking with friends, family, or a new network to relieve some of these feelings. You might feel isolated in your feelings, but it is likely that getting the conversation going with others will actually reveal that other people are feeling similarly exhausted.

For when you are ready to take action…

According to the Guardian, the development of compassion fatigue can lead to decreased funding for charities across the globe.

If you are not financially posed to donate money, but are still wanting to take action, you could volunteer your time. You might donate essentials or write to your MP. There are plenty of ways to feel energised and rekindle your determination to help. Additionally, and potentially even more effectively, you can reassess your voting behaviour, or engage with protests and wider activist demonstrations. It’s probably a good idea to revisit spending habits too. Whether this is direct consumption, your bank accounts, investments, or pensions, many of these larger organisations have links with funding conflict. This useful article from Save The Children goes into these ideas in more detail.

If you can, donate to charities with values that you can resonate with. The good news is, if you are experiencing the feelings we have spoken about in this article, this part of the problem is solved. You do care, even if it sometimes feels like you don’t.

Charities

Finding charities and programmes to donate to is important. Understanding where exactly your money goes is even more so.

Here are some that are particularly relevant to the themes discussed in this article:

#1: Anera

This organisation helps those in difficult situations live decent and dignified lives. Importantly, everyone who works at the organisation are from the same communities the organisation helps, so that solutions are as protective as possible. With a large portion of their work being undertaken in Gaza, one recent project provided psychosocial support to women and their children, which has been massively important since “almost everyone living in the Gaza Strip suffers from depression due to the suffocating conditions” one participant explained. You can read more about the project, and also how to donate, here.

#2: Safe Passage

This UK-based charity believes that every child deserves a safe journey and end destination when fleeing their home. It works alongside refugees to reunite family, and help rebuild lives in safer places.

#3: Women for Women

This organisation recognises the brutal reality that it has “probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict”. The organisation is dedicated to making sure women know their rights, learn marketable skills, and can empower themselves and their families in the face of crisis.  You can either directly donate, or ‘sponsor a sister’, which might help to provide that personal touch to donation.

However, we know too, that not everybody is in a position to donate financially, and that is more than okay. You don’t need to give anyone an excuse.

Action does not need to be financial, and crucially, it doesn’t have to be done today, if you can’t face it.The most important thing is to look after your own mental health, so that you can help others, too.

The team at Kari Health sincerely hope that you have a lot of positive things to look back on over the past year, and feel invigorated to welcome 2024.

Evidence Based
This article has been reviewed by our Kari Health Experts and Editorial Board to ensure accuracy and reliability of the information presented. However, please note that the content provided is for informational purposes only and should not replace advice from your medical professional.

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