*Possible Trigger Warning*
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde
Today, all day, I’ve talked to people who have told me how upset, scared, and horrified they are at the recent events that have shaken our nation. “I just don’t know what’s happening to our world” was the common theme as last night’s attack in Dallas filled our Tv screens, Facebook pages and airwaves. Images and reports of families grieving for their loved ones started pouring in a couple of days ago when two young black men were killed during a confrontation with law enforcement and much of that footage was made public. Emotions already raw, Americans got yet another hit after reports started appearing describing active gunmen at a peaceful protest in Dallas in which 5 Police Officers lost their lives. Horrifying.
A week ago we listened and watched as people in other nations grieved their dead after multiple bombings and terrorist attacks. A few weeks before that we were all glued to out devices as reports came in about an active shooter at a nightclub in Florida. For most of us, it feels as though the world is bleeding and all we can do is stand by in powerless horror, wishing that there was some way to make it stop. Some of us follow the news religiously, some of us try to be politically active as best we know how, some of us pray, but at what point does all of it become too much for us to handle?
I remember starting out as a budding therapist. Straight out of school, ready (in my mind) to heal the world around me (or at least all my clients). Many older and wiser professors had warned me of “compassion fatigue” and I understood on a logical level but never really internalized it. Then came the people sitting in my office with stories of molest, abuse, death, rape, torture, illness and suffering and I found myself taking their stories home with me. Replaying what they told me as I tried to make dinner with my husband, take a shower and get ready for bed. The world can be such a cruel and horrible place. I would start thinking to myself, the suffering will never stop. Each day, it would get a little harder walking into my office knowing what awaited me. I felt myself becoming angry, jaded and frustrated.
Finally, after working with my supervisor and talking with some of my close colleagues I truly discovered what “compassion fatigue” meant and no, you don’t have to be a therapist to struggle with it. It means that if you don’t find ways to deal with the cruelty of life, you’ll continuously find yourself anxious and upset about everything and nothing. Anxiety disorders are the most common illness in the United States (http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics) and while there are many factors at play, I truly believe that our constant exposure to negative events are in part to blame.
So how do we heal ourselves without burying our heads in the sand? Some people claim that they don’t watch the news or become politically active because it’s upsetting. I don’t think this is the answer, as being uninformed can lead to more harm than good. What I DO suggest is learning when your “compassion tank” is almost on empty. Are you starting to feel rundown? Is your mind racing? Are you feeling “down” constantly? Start tuning into your mental and physical clues and you’ll be able to start gauging your own personal comfort level.
Once you’re able to tune into your own comfort zones TURN OFF THE STIMULI. I said it. Turn off the news. Turn off NPR. Delete your Facebook and Twitter app for the day, whatever it takes. This part however, is easier said than done as many of us feel guilty if we aren’t experiencing the pain and the horror along with the victims. Are you ready for a cliché?
Put your own airmask on first.
No one helps a situation if they’re immobilized with fear, rage and depression. Do you unwind watching the Bachelor? Go on ahead, I won’t tell anyone. Put it on. While you’re at it, make yourself a cup of tea. Need a break from screens all together? Pick a lighthearted book and escape for a bit. Go for a walk. Draw. Color. Play with your kids. Knit while chatting with friends. Grab your yoga mat. Cook a meal. listen to some classic jazz. JUST DO SOMETHING.
Again, I want to impress upon you, I am NOT saying to stop caring. But I am asking you to take a break from the hurt. I promise, you’ll be able to catch up on all the events you could ever want to be informed about when you’re done with the click of a button. But for now, put your own well-being first. No one else can do that but you.