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Editorial: How should we deal with compassion fatigue?


If you were to open Instagram right now, in less than five minutes you could probably see pictures from a friend’s vacation, death statistics from the Israel-Gaza conflict, a recipe for french toast and breaking news about a mass shooting. You might even be able to do it without leaving your home page.  

Because apps like TikTok and Instagram curate the content we see through algorithms and our friends’ posts, a healthy mix of demoralizing and depressing news is sure to make its way onto our timelines. 

Because we all consume this content at such a high speed and volume, the depressing news we see comes in many different forms.

From international tragedies, to threats to freedom of speech and fear-mongering political podcast clips, you’ll have no trouble finding information on all of the scariest and most dejecting things happening on the planet at any given time.

The more of this globalized information we take in, the more we can try to empathize with and try to understand the struggles of those who are being negatively affected. But we cannot pretend there aren’t adverse effects to this flood of distressing information.  

Rest assured that social media’s ability to act as a tool for advocacy and awareness is not lost on us. Nor is the reality that trying to empathize with these communities will inevitably affect our optimism and worldview. 

But we have to recognize that even with the immense privilege of only having to see these conflicts through our phones, the isolation and dread that come with this burden of such far-reaching information can be taxing. 

We know the answer is not to be oblivious to the injustices around the world being shared on these platforms or to turn a blind eye to the physical and emotional toll that this information takes on us.   

Instead, we have to recognize the gifts and the burdens that come with this information and find healthy, productive outlets for charity and support. 

Tulane professor Charles Figley defines compassion fatigue as “emotional and physical exhaustion that sometimes afflicts people who are exposed to others’ trauma.”

While it’s commonly exhibited by people working in healthcare and social services, the phenomenon is becoming more common as people are more exposed to others’ trauma on the annals of the internet.

Physical symptoms of compassion fatigue like trouble sleeping, headaches and changes in personality or mood might be easy to recognize. But other symptoms like emotional numbness or increased irritability can be harder to recognize. 

As students keeping our heads above water, it’s easy to feel like we are not being socially conscious enough. Then we open Instagram to see the thousands of different organizations and charities vying for our money and time, and we get pulled further underneath the water.     

It’s easy to feel powerless when our good intentions of extending compassion to others only turn to feelings of dread.

But when we understand these feelings are a result of stretching our compassion too thin, it makes finding a solution much easier.    

The most common solutions to these feelings are the same cornerstones of mental health that we’ve all heard many times (moving, getting good sleep and spending time outdoors.) 

But we’ve found that the most effective way to combat our powerlessness is to create realistic expectations for the support we can provide and to find opportunities to support the communities we are connected to.     

Choosing the communities we empathize with to send money or aid to can help quell some of those feelings of powerlessness. 

In-person volunteering can allow us to build connections with those right here in the Lehigh Valley, and see the immediate impact of our efforts on someone’s life. 

The Lehigh Valley even has its own Volunteer Center where we can find local volunteering opportunities that fit with your schedule.

It’s much easier to feel isolated when we think about our social responsibility through a global lens, but when we find these opportunities to provide support to and make a tangible impact on our communities, it can make our social responsibility feel less daunting. 

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to dealing with the flood of depressing information that we get from the internet and social media.

It is up to each individual to decide how their social responsibility fits into the accessibility of information regarding these injustices and conflicts. 

We are vastly privileged to be able to experience these tragedies only as videos and headlines, but it’s difficult not to feel numb and helpless.  

What’s important to understand is that we are not alone in dealing with the dread and guilt that comes with this flood of negative information.

But there are useful, charitable outlets to help us deal with these feelings while fulfilling our social responsibility. 

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