SHIFT: Powerlessness is exhausting

Empathy fatigue has most commonly been tied to healthcare workers and first responders but experts say that it can affect anyone.

Lisa Machado 4 minute read October 25, 2021
watercolour of girl sleeping

Taking control and “not being a victim” gives us energy — physically, but also in a gentler raison d’être kind of way. GETTY

I have a friend who always talks about choices and control.

If you complain about your hair, she rhymes off all the ways you need to reclaim your power: choose a new hairstyle, get a different hair stylist, try a new shampoo. Hate your job? Brush off your resume, she says, go back to school, talk it out with your boss. “You’re not a victim” is her mantra and she rocks it with lectures on how choices give you power and liberate you from feeling stuck and helpless and most of all, help you find true happiness.

I really like where she thinks she is going with this. It’s that you-are-in-control-of-your-destiny thing — the delicious idea that we can right any wrong in our lives by simply opening ourselves up to possibilities and not accepting less-than. This way of thinking can encourage us to climb into the driver’s seat of our lives — after all, it’s true that a good haircut can do wonders for self-loathing. And a boss chat might actually get us a promotion to a role we love, along with a raise. Plus, more than bettering our quality of life, taking control and “not being a victim” gives us energy — physically, but also in a gentler raison d’être kind of way. Choosing something better for ourselves is a powerful demonstration of self-love.

But what about when the thing that makes you unhappy, fearful, or anxious is bigger than just a new hairdo or a lacklustre job? What if it’s something that doesn’t offer any great exit options, or even an ability to change the course, like managing a life-threatening illness or caring for a dying loved one? What if it’s a global pandemic involving a mutating virus that makes people deathly ill and daily bad news? The persistent negativity and absence of choice and control is palatable, and with it comes a sense o exhaustion that is hard to put into words. Psychologists have a name for it though: empathy fatigue.

And while empathy fatigue has most commonly been tied to healthcare workers and first responders because their jobs expose them to repeated trauma and suffering, empathy fatigue can affect anyone. In fact, according to psychologist Dr. Susan Albers, the pandemic has pushed what she calls the “secondary traumatic stress disorder” out into the public, impacting all of us who have spent more than a year living with the stress of constant threats to our health and dealing with the daily onslaught of fearful news — all the while managing the ups and downs of our own lives.

“When we’re under stress day after day, it’s like a constant drip of cortisol that goes to our brain,” says Albers. “And we can only do that for so long until our body and mind start to break down.”

You know how everyone seems to be always tired?

Albers describes empathy fatigue as “a negative consequence of exposure to stressful or traumatic events,” noting there are different degrees, from physical exhaustion to feeling a sense of numbness to the most severe — losing the capacity to care. Other signs of empathy fatigue, she says, include lack of energy, feeling tense, headaches, nausea and self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.

And while it can develop into depression if left unchecked, there are some strategies that Albers recommends to help buffer the impact of negativity and lack of control and prevent empathy fatigue from becoming worrisome. First, be aware of emotions and acknowledge what’s causing your feelings. Second, focus on things you can control, like eating well, exercising and getting quality sleep. Finally, keep in touch with the people you care about — feeling connected can be healing, she says. Talking about your emotions with a professional can also help process perceptions of powerlessness and negativity.

But these aren’t solutions — no matter how much my solutions-oriented friend would probably beg to differ. Rather, they are simply stop-gap measures to help prevent a problem from getting bigger. Better than nothing, I suppose.

If only getting over empathy fatigue was as simple as a new hairstyle.

This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Subscribe here.