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Is empathy wearing you out? (And what you can do about it…)

Do you feel exhausted after listening to just ten minutes of news?

Last week, as I was driving to the ferry and listening to Public Radio, I heard about:

  • Mounting death toll in California, fires still raging, property destroyed;
  • Puerto Rico still without power and basic health care for many;
  • New facts about the Las Vegas shooter;
  • Millions about to lose health care insurance;
  • Successful family planning clinic helping the poor in Madagascar losing funding because of US policy changes.

I clicked off the radio.

It wasn’t even 9 am and I was distressed for the day.

Compassion Fatigue

Some years ago, the term compassion fatigue was coined to describe how nurses and other caretakers can lose their ability to care after dealing with too much trauma and working with too many difficult cases. It referred to people who burn out on their work.

What about those of us who are burning out because we can’t do anything–or enough–to address the problems we hear about daily?

Empathic Distress

Roshi Joan Halifax, renowned Zen teacher and medical anthropologist, prefers a different term: empathic distress. Empathic distress is a form of trauma that occurs when you empathize deeply with a situation, but it seems you can’t do a darn thing about it–like influencing Congress these days. In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, Halifax described how people can be pushed into “edge states,” close to trauma, where they experience their energy being sucked out of them.

Who can listen to the radio these days, with empathy, and not feel distressed and exhausted?

Halifax said:

“Compassionate people are overwhelmed now with the deluge of terrible news. The pictures are too present and too vivid. The news cycle is too relentless. I see pictures of children in faraway places that wreck me for a day. So the question…is how do we find the courage? How do we heal enough? How do we be present to that and not be overwhelmed by it?

We feel this profound moral conflict. And yet we can’t do anything about it, and we enter into a state either of moral outrage, or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just don’t want to deal with it, or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness, or into freeze.

How distress can physically freeze us: the strange case of frozen shoulder

A few years ago I was afflicted by a bizarre condition called frozen shoulder. Lifting my shoulder or doing routine arm movements such as catching a ball sent me into paroxysms of pain. Massage and physical therapy didn’t help, and I learned there was little that could be done to remedy the problem. With frozen shoulder, your shoulder starts out feeling acute pain. Eventually, your shoulder freezes and numbs and the experience of pain subsides. Then, after a few months, it “melts” (some pain may return) and the shoulder eventually resumes operations. The process can take up to a year.

Doesn’t today’s news risk making us freeze and numb?

Trauma therapist Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing, writes that frozen shoulder can occur when we’re caught between stopping and needing to move ahead. He described the dramatic case of a firefighter who had to pull a woman’s body out of a wrecked car. He was pulled to do his job yet repulsed by the blood, body parts, and dead children he saw in the car. His go/stay trauma eventually lodged in his body as frozen shoulder.

How do we deal with daily doses of trauma?

Halifax says: “Affecting positive change in society, a mission so vital to those passionate about caring for others, is perceived as elusive, if not impossible. This painful reality, coupled with first-hand knowledge of society’s flagrant disregard for the safety and well being of the feeble and frail, takes its toll on everyone from full-time employees to part-time volunteers.”

She says the solution isn’t to go numb or stop caring, but to learn to “down-regulate” our emotions so that we can return to a place of calm after the shock of what we have experienced.

What we can do

Halifax says: “For me, the path of meditation has been critical because I’m a very passionate person. And I have learned to actually down-regulate and to become, in a way, more sensitive without being hyper-aroused, which would cause me to withdraw.”

Through meditation she trains her mind to be sensitive to when she’s at an edge. “I can withdraw—but not completely—in order to ground myself…”

Down-regulation, or calming ourselves in the face of emotional responses to upsetting news, is vital. We begin by recognizing when we are approaching an edge and need to chill in order to feel compassion without over-whelming ourselves. We can experiment with methods that allow us to receive the news, then return to a calm place within ourselves, such as:

  • Meditating
  • Sitting quietly, breathing and chilling
  • Going for a run or getting some vigorous exercise
  • Playing with animals
  • Laughing or singing

I believe the best relief involves some somatic (bodily) release through breathing, moving or sweating, activities that give our minds a chance to relax.

I’ve recently started Zumba dancing. The music lifts me up.  I move. I laugh. I sweat (a lot!). With  Zumba, I haven’t saved the world but at least I’ve found some balance with which to proceed through my day.

I don’t think the news is going to get lighter soon. We all need to be able to down-regulate so we can bear the news, keep going, and then decide what we want to do.

How do you keep moving with the news?


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