friends showing empathy
The Equity Issue

After Two Years of COVID, Are We Running Out of Empathy?

In February 2020, our lives were on the brink of immense change. Whisperings of a strange novel virus circulated, with those whispers quickly turning to shouts by March 2020 when we entered a global lockdown. Two years later, many of our lives are unrecognizable. Parents are experiencing psychological distress due to financial uncertainty, school closures, and distance learning.

What Have The Past Two Years Cost Us?

To date, COVID-19 has claimed 5.5 million lives, resulting in collective grief for each of us. Food insecurity has inevitably increased due to widespread financial fall-out and difficulty accessing affordable provisions. Many are leaving their jobs due to employer expectations, decreased boundaries, and increased stress. We're also developing a reduced bandwidth for reality, evidenced by a recent study linking the influx of negative news during the pandemic to individuals disengaging with health-related media.

It feels that pain is present no matter where we turn, and our empathy is rapidly depleting. Simply put: It hurts to care. Unfortunately, no one is immune to dwindling empathy. As a clinician, I witness clients and colleagues alike lament over the state of our world. I, too, feel the drain of my emotional resources at times.

Decreased empathy presents as an inability to witness and aid the suffering of others because we are overwhelmed with our current circumstances.

"The pressures and uncertainty of the world affected my ability to show up for others. I just kept going through the motions of my daily life and never processed the impact of what was happening," Long Beach-based social worker Shardasia LeDay recalled as she reflected on her experiences over the past two years.

Shardasia LeDay, social worker

I kept trying to keep up, but I ended up feeling like I was sinking in quicksand.

— Shardasia LeDay, social worker

Eventually, she left her job due to the constant dread, drain, and pressure she was experiencing. Shardasia's story is an increasingly common one. We're not only sharing a mass health crisis. We're also experiencing an empathy deficit.

Understanding the Empathy Deficit

This waning empathy is called compassion fatigue, a term that was initially attributed to those in helping professions but now, after two years of a pandemic, has become a mainstream phenomenon. Eager to get to the heart of our collective experience, Verywell Mind turned to psychotherapist Sarah Callender, LCSW.

Sarah Callender, LCSW

Compassion fatigue is that slow burn that happens over time when taking on other people's emotions.

— Sarah Callender, LCSW

Eventually, that slow burn can turn into difficulty accessing compassion and care for those in pain.

You may be reading this and thinking, A lack of empathy? Sure, I've been tired and frustrated, grieving and in pain, but I am not lacking any empathy. Struggling to access empathy often doesn't come bearing obvious red flags. Instead, it has the same symptoms that can feel as mundane as the fall-out from a stressful day.

Critical indicators of compassion fatigue include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Mounting irritation over minor snafus that seldom bothered you in the past
  • Random body aches and
  • A decreased desire to stay up-to-date on current events

In addition, those who experience compassion fatigue may feel numb to the scale of death occurring in our world and pressure to stay informed, resulting in general discontent. Others may become uncharacteristically rigid and controlling with irritable tendencies. If any of these scenarios feel familiar, you may be at risk for compassion fatigue.

According to Callender, a massive trigger of compassion fatigue is consistent exposure to trauma where it is difficult to imagine how the suffering could end. Exposure to a tragic event creates sorrow and grief that extend to each of us. Our current pandemic is unique because it highlights multiple pain points related to inequality. Interconnected to COVID-19 are social determinants to health, such as race, gender, disability, and class, resulting in an increased likelihood for oppressed groups to succumb to the virus. Again, we aren't only facing a virus. We're witnessing how systemic oppression continues to shape our nation, expanding our shared turmoil.

Replenishing Our Resources

Empathy is a finite resource. It is natural to avoid anything that reminds you of our nation's agony as a protective mechanism. However, compassion fatigue isn't a terminal diagnosis. With some education and tools, we can begin to refill our well of empathy.

"In terms of healing, you have to be preemptive. Lay the foundation for when things go wrong. For example, develop a regular self-care plan and an emergency self-care plan. Share it with others, so you have accountability," Callender explains.

Creating this foundation helps build a sense of security and functions as a form of healthy control, signaling to the mind that help is here. When so much feels out of our hands, having a self-determined plan provides solace.

A self-care plan focuses on day-to-day maintenance. Think along the lines of meditating during a work break, engaging in activity or stretching, connecting with people you love, and tending to your sleep hygiene. Write your plan down and keep it somewhere you can always see in your home or office. Then, move on to creating an emergency self-care plan, a concept initially developed by Dr. Elaine Rinfrette, LCSW-R. This plan is something you turn to when experiencing any crisis.

To start your emergency self-care plan, grab a 3x5 card and a pen. Begin by listing contacts of a few trustworthy people you can reach out to, coping tools that you know will help you (meditation, exercise, and cooking are great examples), and positive affirmations to say to yourself.

Be sure to jot down some reminders of what not to do–for example, if you have a complicated relationship with your sibling, you may not want to call them on a tough day. Write down maladaptive coping tools you know you shouldn't turn to, like drinking alcohol or isolating yourself. Take a photo of the card so you can reference it anytime. Tuck the physical card into your purse or wallet. Set a reminder to look at your emergency self-care plan at least once a month so it stays at the forefront of your mind.

Dr. Beth Hudnall Stamm, the Professional Quality of Life Scale creator, developed a "pocket card" resource focused on caring for yourself during our current health crisis. Though it is geared towards folks in helping professions, it is safe to say we are all doing challenging work by simply surviving, making this resource helpful for anyone. It even outlines ways to protect empathy by switching between "work" and "off-work" ways of thinking.

Don't wait to use this until you're at work. Instead, try it out when you're watching the news, parenting, or engaging in a hard conversation. Each of the circumstances above counts as a form of labor and can deplete empathy reserves. Training your mind to turn off after engaging in challenging work will develop an increased window of tolerance for taxing information.

Combating compassion fatigue also requires a shift towards a holistic way of living.

"Be in therapy, rest, have breaks to play, find joy, and connect with nature," Callender explains.

There's research to back up her suggestions as well. Nature is known to enhance cognitive function, and sleep is essential for our overall health. When nourishing the mind and body, the empathy reserves slowly start to fill up.

Remember What You Can Control

Sarah Callender, LCSW

With the pandemic and civil unrest, we have to decide where our control lies and then work to let go of the rest. One person can't stop all of these things, but consider where you can bring forth positive change.

— Sarah Callender, LCSW

Volunteering and exploring ways to get involved in your community is another way to come back into contact with a sense of control. When we move away from the despair of feeling powerless and towards the energy of bringing forth positive change, we begin to replenish our empathy resources. Remedying compassion fatigue with helping others may seem counterintuitive, but it can decrease the fatigue and increase empathy when balanced with restorative forms of self-care.

Healing from compassion fatigue is possible.

"Going through compassion fatigue made me realize that I cannot heal everybody. I had to learn my limits," LeDay shared.

In learning her limits, LeDay realized she could make a difference in her community while maintaining balance for herself. However, healing isn't without change, and in LeDay's case, a significant career transition ensued.

"A lot of my former clients had housing issues, and homelessness is a huge problem in our society. After leaving my job, I decided to learn the logistics of real estate so I can eventually help others attain secure housing," she explained. Though the transition hasn't been easy, she admits it has increased her quality of life. "I made the right decision for my health," she concludes.

As for me? Through slowing down, I reunited with my full reserves of empathy. I began scheduling time to rest, set firm boundaries, and spent more time in nature. Over time, I reflected on the events my elders lived through, wondering what wisdom they leaned on during times of hardship.

As a Black clinician providing care to BIPOC folks at an unprecedented time in history, caring for myself is a form of resistance, a battle cry my ancestors never had. The struggle may be far from over, but I am best armed with my spirit intact. I promise you; you are too.

If you or a loved one are struggling with compassion or empathy fatigue, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Artwork by Catherine Song

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.