Empathy fatigue – are you tired of being kind?

Women are natural carers and can gain a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment out of caring for others and ensuring that their emotional, physical and mental health is sound. Pre- Covid many of us were able to balance out our caring with looking after ourselves for the most part – school mornings were busy but there was work banter to look forward to, lunch dates to fulfil us and holidays to recharge us.

Lockdowns have changed the amount of caring that we are required to do on a day to day basis and those little pockets of relief that sustained us have declined. We are now responsible for the mental, physical and emotional health of children going through a pandemic. We may be supporting a partner who has lost work hours or the family business. We may be solely responsible for the income of our family yet still have to homeschool and fit in work around the remote school day. Our family may be in another State or country and unable to provide support or socialisation.

The level of empathy and kindness in our bucket is decreasing rapidly.

Empathy fatigue was traditionally reserved for first responders and health care workers who emotionally shut down after taking on their clients suffering – a phenomenon I have experienced myself. I recently attended an online webinar on empathetic distress and realised that empathy fatigue is not just affecting healthcare workers any more – it is affecting parents.

Empathy fatigue is a secondary stress from repeated exposure to trauma, stress, change or fear. Something we are all experiencing with each lockdown announcement. With each lockdown or period of homeschooling we experience emotions in our body – nausea, tightness, pain, tiredness, an increased heart rate or breathing. Over time these emotions and bodily sensations can become uncomfortable, even unbearable and cause us to shut down our feelings. They can lead to us withdrawing from our family, becoming easily irritated with our children, having feelings of guilt about our reactions and feeling overwhelmed, tired and emotional. It may seem too hard to bother getting out of our pyjamas for a zoom meeting, or we feel too overwhelmed to fit in a walk with a friend or to take the time to make a healthy dinner.

So what to do. As lovely as it would be for me to recommend you fit in a yoga session or a long hot bath, there just might not be time right now. So let’s focus on the small things that you can do.

Firstly, just start by recognising it. I know it’s not a cure all and it’s not a plane ticket to Europe which would be really lovely right now. But it is a simple mental health strategy which is really effective over time. Once you start recognising what is going on and understanding that you’re withdrawing because you feel overwhelmed, you will feel less secondary emotions – like guilt and shame. You’re less likely to have the voice in your head saying things like “You are such a bad Mum. I can’t believe you’re sitting on the toilet floor scrolling through Instagram when your child needs a hug right now. What is wrong with you?”. Instead it might sound more like “This is so hard. I feel sick in my stomach. I can’t even think straight. I feel like this because we’re going through a pandemic and I don’t have any control or time or space. I wish it wasn’t like this but it is.”

Secondly, breathe. (I know, I know…but it works). My favourite strategy that I recommend to my clients is counting the breath:

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose to a count of 6 (1…2…3…4…5…6).
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds (1…2…3…4)
  • Slowly let your breath out through your nose to a count of 8 (1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8).

Do this technique for as long as you like. You may find that for the first couple of minutes your mind will still be racing and there may be lots of negative self talk going through your head. After a while your mind will focus on the breathing and the counting. After about 5 minutes your parasympathetic nervous system will kick in and your self talk will become more gentle. You might be calm enough to come up with a solution to your situation and go back into the environment with a fresh perspective.