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Opinion: Compassion fatigue has us on the ropes

We’re all burned out on Coronavirus. 

COVID-19, the ‘Rona, or whatever you want to call it has been hitting us from every side lately. Every news story, video social event, junk email, social media meme and shopping list since the week of March 5 have all had the same subject line. It’s claimed lives and livelihood, economy, relationships, and all sense of normalcy — and it won’t let up. We’re like prizefighters on the ropes, hanging on under the onslaught and just trying to keep our guard up and stay on our feet until we hear the bell. But if this global pandemic is still so important, why are we starting to lag? Well, because we’re human.

We were all ready to pitch in and do our part when this thing kicked off. As early as March 17, docu-series like Outbreak and Pandemic were making Netflix’s Top 10 lists and enjoying unprecedented streaming numbers as audiences sought to understand what was happening. We’re story tellers. We relate to stories about other people. That’s just part of our evolution. So, we shopped and we stocked. We watched all of the movies and we read all of the books. We posted funny videos to make each other laugh, we made masks because we felt the urge to help, we stayed indoors to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves, and we waited for this to end. And we’re still waiting. But this is a marathon, not a sprint.

We throw everything we’ve got at the problem, but we need the problem to go away at some point.

There has always been a clear ending to the problems we’ve faced before. Hurricanes have a season. While the damage they inflict isn’t a question, they typically don’t last very long. Flood waters recede, and massive forest fires burn themselves out eventually. There is no light to be made of any of these tragedies, but this happens with every major disaster — we can only “click” or pay attention, or donate money, time and effort for so long before we’re mentally and physically tapped out. We throw everything we’ve got at the problem, but we need the problem to go away at some point. The triple sorrow of Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria was the island’s existing economic situation beforehand, the damage sustained during the storm, and the trauma Puerto Ricans continued to suffer long after the storm had passed. People on the mainland wanted to care, to help, to donate, and to click. But after a month, they just wanted the problem gone. Humans just aren’t designed to handle long term stress like this. Eventually, a phenomenon known as “compassion fatigue” sets in.

Compassion fatigue is defined as “the display of chronic stress resulting from helping others.” In other words, it’s the cost of caring and it’s long been associated with health care professionals like doctors, veterinarians and even lawyers. It happens when a person experiences a transformation as the result of being exposed to the traumatic stress of other people over a period of time. It doesn’t mean “a lack of caring” and it shouldn’t be confused with similar-sounding terms like PTSD. Compassion fatigue is a unique condition resulting from secondary exposure; individuals are impacted by the stress of those they’re helping. Human beings can only focus on so many things at once and for so long, especially if they are stress inducing and carry second-hand pain. It’s just how our brains evolved.

You’re also watching Monday turn to Saturday and Tuesday become Sunday.

You’re doing your best. We all are. We only have three “eights” in our day; eight hours for sleep (roughly), eight hours for work, and eight hours to squeeze in some semblance of a life. If you’re like me, you’re now spending all those hours indoors just trying to maintain yourself. You’re also watching Monday turn to Saturday and Tuesday become Sunday. You’re aware of the sunlight streaming in through the living room window behind you, tracing a time-lapse arc across the opposite wall as the days and weeks flash by; the kitchen appears to be lit by a strobe light from all the bored trips to the refrigerator, and you find that you’re waking up before going to sleep. It’s like Groundhog Day, but without the ice sculptures or French poetry.

Maintain as much normalcy and routine at home as you can. Stick to a schedule as much as possible. Write one on a piece of paper and tape it on your wall if you have to. Whatever works. Take care of your physical and mental well-being by eating healthy, getting plenty of rest, and exercising when, where, or however you can. Go for walks outside — just remember to wash your hands, wear a mask, and maintain your distancing. Ask a friend or neighbor if you can walk their dog if you don’t have one. Talk with someone about whatever you’re feeling, and know that it’s normal to be affected emotionally by large-scale disasters or outbreaks such as this. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t help directly. If the news, social media, or other information outlets are overwhelming — step away and disconnect. Just take care of yourself and those who depend on you, so that you’re ready to come back when this is over. You can’t nourish others from an empty cup (If your self-care includes pistachio ice cream and Netflix for lunch once in a while, that’s okay too.) And at the end of the day, we’ll get through this.

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