Watching the suffering or pain of our fellow humans is distressing, but at the root of the distress is an important word: stress. Stress has a negative connotation but plays a huge role in spurring our bodies and minds forward to avoid or remedy unfavorable situations. Stress, at its heart, is meant to help us, but it’s easy to have too much of it–which is where we run into problems.
Being distressed at the suffering of others is meant to spur us into action, whether it’s actively helping or actively listening (or even choosing to be passive) in a situation for which it is called. It helps us display and practice compassion. Just like having too much stress, having too much compassion can lead to overload; and again, this is where we can run into complications.
As anyone who works in any of the medical fields (all of it, including physical, mental, dental, and veterinary), the police force, military, or cares for special needs family members can tell you: it’s easy to get burnt out from having to be compassionate all the time. This phenomenon is a real thing, and it’s called compassion fatigue. It’s different than true burn out but shares many similarities…only with more guilt. It usually falls onto people who have a great desire to help. It sneaks up on you. The fatigue is real, but the desire to help doesn’t go away. Instead, you still show up to all the situations because you still want to help, but you are astounded that after seeing the tenth heart-wrenching scenario before your eyes in one day…you don’t feel compassion anymore. You feel numb.
Compassion fatigue is such a hot topic among healthcare workers, in particular, that they have conferences and seminars designed to help you recognize the signs of compassion fatigue before it actually gets to the point where you are going through the motions with no real emotional investment in what you’re doing anymore. I’ve been to such a conference and found it very helpful, as I identified several zones that we go through before we get to the “breaking point.” Much like traffic lights, there are green, yellow, and red zones, and conferences use simple tools like helping you break down areas in your life and habits that fit in each zone. Knowing your warning signs is an important way of knowing when to stop, when to ask for help, and when to take a break.
Research from 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology explores that the risk and symptoms of compassion fatigue may be reduced by engaging in compassion meditation sessions. The researchers followed 24 participants who were in a line of work where they were exposed to others’ suffering routinely. For two weeks, the participants were asked to do 30 minutes of compassion meditation or a technique called reappraisal training. Reappraisal training teaches the person to re-interpret their own reactions to stressful situations by decreasing their negative emotional attachments to the events.
Compassion meditation focused on visualizing people who were suffering and developing an objective and calm reaction, followed by visualizing people in their lives with whom they had conflict and practicing caring and desiring to help those people.
To test if the sessions were working, researchers used brain scans while the participants viewed footage of people in distress while they practiced their new techniques. The researchers also tracked the eye movements of the participants to see if they were able to focus on areas of suffering in the photos or footage.
Compared to those with no compassion meditation or re-appraisal techniques, the participants were able to look more directly at visual input of suffering. Their brain scans revealed that there was less activity in the areas of the brain that are active during personal emotional stress. The amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, and insula are areas that become activated during emotional distress and cause withdrawal and visual aversion from the situation.
Much like exercising a muscle or practicing mindfulness for other conditions, participants were able to cope more effectively with stressful situations after just 2 weeks of practicing these techniques. It’s important to note they weren’t taught emotional detachment from the events—instead their compassion and sympathy were still an important part of their mental exercises.
The desire to help others is fundamental to human nature, but it sometimes leads us into situations that can erode our emotional boundaries over time. Techniques like these will gain new ground in helping those on the front lines (also sometimes on the backlines or just those with a stressful home situation), so that we can take care of ourselves and our communities better. This will help us stop the detrimental effects of compassion fatigue and keep others’ compassion intact for the true gift it was meant to be.
Helen Y. Weng, Regina C. Lapate, Diane E. Stodola, et al. Visual Attention to Suffering After Compassion Training Is Associated With Decreased Amygdala Responses. Frontiers in Psychology, 2018; 9 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00771