Here in the USA February is our traditional “Heart Month”. Amongst the Valentines, roses, ribbons, chocolates and advice about cardiac health, it may also be time to shed some light on another form of “heart disease”. What used to be called “burnout” now has many labels, including; compassion fatigue, soldier’s heart, ongoing overwhelm, secondary traumatization and nervous exhaustion. This phenomenon, which now has many names and countless cross–cultural variations, presents a serious and sometimes life threatening challenge to personal and professional caregivers who, over time, become “just too tired to care”. We can recognize compassion fatigue in a pattern of sudden or gradual disengagement; emotions are blunted, relationships fail, and exhaustion affects motivation, drive and often physical well-being, as well.
Frankfurt born psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger first named this syndrome. The Oxford English Dictionary credits him with the first use of the term “burnout” in 1974. Whatever the label, the phenomenon is painfully real. People in the healing and helping professions; doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers and yes, even the clergy, can fall prey to this insidious form of emotional exhaustion. In such a state one feels helpless, hopeless, negative and even cynical; about oneself, work, life and the state of the world. Germans have a very precise word for this “feeling the pain of the world” which they describe as Weltschmertz. Trauma specialists are not immune to the pitfalls of compassion fatigue, as we come in constant contact with the darker aspects of the human condition.
Compassion fatigue can have a social dimension as well, and is a contributing factor to an ability to walk on, past the increasing numbers of homeless veterans, mentally ill and other citizens living on our streets. Barely into 2012, I am already sensing something like “Apocalypse Fatigue” in response to a media blitz about the Mayan calendar, Armageddon, The Rapture and other end of the world predictions. This has given rise to a rash of cynical bumper stickers such as “After The Rapture Can I Have Your Car?” Mainstream media reports are filled with war casualties, atrocities, terrorist attacks, false flags and violent revolutions. We are also facing economic collapse, political scandals, climate change, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, solar flares and possible pandemics.
Even worse, an ongoing meltdown of the nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Complex, is poisoning air, food and water throughout our globe. I could go on, but this might understandably result in your tuning out your already tragedy overdosed sensibilities. Small wonder that some people need to deny and minimize the catastrophic. Others deal with overwhelm by shunning headlines and ignoring the news in favor of shopping, sports and celebrity gossip. Confronted with overwhelming suffering, our violence numbed nervous systems may seek to self-regulate through recoil, shutdown and distraction.
When something, or seemingly everything is just too much, time is needed for relief and self-regulation. San Francisco satirist Mark Morford suggests that a clear grasp of our current situation calls for “ice cold sake and a nice warm bath”. This is one option and admittedly not available to all, and there are others. It is important to remember that we are not as powerless as it may seem and that we do have options. One of the hallmarks of a maxed out and traumatized state is to lose the perception of options. When the sense of option is restored one moves in the direction of balance. There is much wisdom in the old saying, “You can’t change the world”. We do, however, have the option of changing our response to that which we cannot change. We also have the option to take the time to examine to what degree the clash between expectations and reality is adding to and perpetuating our distress.
There are clear indications that we are now in a period of profound meteorological, geologic and socio-economic upheaval which is likely to continue for an indefinite period of time. In view of this reality, it would be wise to anticipate and prepare for enormous waves of change. We would do well to focus on the necessity for adaptation and resiliency. If the big picture seems to be daunting, we can resolve to stay informed and then conserve energy and attention for the needs of our own immediate lives; the families, loved ones and communities to which we belong.