Running on Empty: Compassion Fatigue and What to Do About It

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What do we do when we're overwhelmed with all the needs in our world? It’s easy to become numb to tragedies and disasters – especially when TV and the internet broadcast images and reports “24/7” from around the world.

Experts even have a name for the most extreme type of numbing, called “compassion fatigue”. According to psychologist Charles Figley compassion fatigue is defined as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.”

While frequently used in regards to nurses, first responders, and other people who witness great need in their line of work, the general population isn’t immune to experiencing a level of apathy or lowered empathy in response to crises. 

So, what do we do when we struggle to find compassion? Where can we turn? 

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As Christians, our compassion flows from the heart of God. We show empathy and care because He cared first (1 John 4:19). Compassion is a type of spiritual discipline, and extending it is a way we can draw nearer to the heart of God. If we want to be more like God, we will act more compassionately, since that is how God treats us and all his creation. Praying for a personal renewed sense of compassion is a way to respond to compassion fatigue as well as a way to pursue God’s Kingdom. 

Experts frequently advise those feeling overwhelmed by global events to practice key elements of self-care – especially if seeing disasters or other wide-scale problems causes us to suffer physical effects like headaches, lack of sleep, anxiety, or depression. Setting aside time for rejuvenating activities, exercise and rest, meaningful moments with loved ones, and times for worship and praise can all help to relieve anxiety and recharge the soul. Avoiding sensationalized TV or news reports and seeking information from non-profit organizations or balanced news sources can also help us remain informed without becoming desensitized.

Rev. Kenneth Balch, the Missional Leadership Specialist for the Mid-Atlantic Nazarene District, spent many years serving in compassionate ministries. He says in that time he learned “…I had to take care of me in order to be able to care for others. While I’ve been super weary of well doing, I can’t say I’ve ever given up. I merely give myself permission and space to withdraw, trust God to fill in what I can’t do, and take sabbath rest or even a sabbatical so I can renew." 

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Another way to regain compassion after a numb season is to focus attention on the micro level. Instead of spending time overwhelmed by many global statistics and needs, look for a single global compassionate project to support, or one local person or family in need. Listen to their story, and learn about the complexities they face and how you can walk alongside them to alleviate some of those needs. Centering our generosity and compassion to a micro level can feel less overwhelming than trying to engage in a wide variety of issues and causes. Targeting small also helps us pace our engagement, reaching in when we have the emotional and spiritual capacity to do so.

Amanda Zambrano, Grantwriter & Donor Communications Director for Houghton College in Houghton, NY, has faced deep suffering in her life and struggled to maintain her empathy at times. “If I'm feeling particularly numb or unable to empathize with those who are suffering,” she says, “I try to focus on something individual and very close to home - one person who is ill, one family who is grieving, one child who is hungry. And then I try to be proactive in meeting a need, through prayer or encouragement. I find this slowly helps me regain my ability to feel the pains and needs of others.”

With focused prayer for renewed empathy, planned moments of self-care, and choosing to engage with needs on a local or micro level, it is possible to stay compassionate and empathetic. In doing so, we follow the example of Christ, who was moved by compassion and cared deeply for all people in need. 

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
— Matthew 9:35-36, NIV
Amy HeckmanComment