Science explains why there’s a loss of human compassion during pandemics
Since Washington state, where I live, instated its stay-at-home order over 100 days ago, I’ve noticed a number of changes in my behavior. First, the novelty of the Zoom hangouts wore off, and I found connecting with friends and family over video chat left me feeling more drained than fulfilled. I found this baffling, especially as an extrovert. Next, my fiancé noticed that I was getting snippier. At one point, he said, “It seems like right now you don’t have the capacity to be there for me, and that’s okay” — a statement that I did not view as an insult but the truth.
Most recently, on a walk with my dog — a sweet 65-pound German shepherd named June — a small, yippy, off-leash dog ran toward her. I tried to wrangle June while telling the other dog’s owner to leash her dog. This rapidly escalated into a screaming fight, during which a neighbor came out on his lawn to tell us, “I know we’re all a little wound up these days but…” (I didn’t hear the rest of it because I had turned around and left).
I don’t usually see myself as crass, uncaring, or volatile. And even though I am writing this for a sea of strangers, I like to think that my friends would agree. Every time I noticed myself acting uncharacteristically, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience: a ghost of me watching from afar, wondering what on Earth was happening to me.
If any of my behaviors under lockdown resonate, that’s likely because we’re all a little — as my neighbor said — wound up. Call it what you want: compassion fatigue, empathy fatigue, or just straight up crisis fatigue. The reality is, the shitshow of 2020 is beginning to catch up with our ability to deal with anything, especially other people, if it hasn’t yet already. Whether we are taking care of ailing family members, impossibly juggling work with childcare, mourning the death of a pet, working a job that demands a lot of empathy already, doomscrolling through the news, or grappling with the despair of living in relative isolation because that’s what it takes to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, our ability to care feels like it’s firing on all cylinders and getting depleted again and again and again. With so many of us on a hair trigger, we have less capacity to empathize with people who we would otherwise extend care and compassion for.
Adrienne Heinz, PhD, a community-based clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California, describes this moment as a “quiet, silent suffering.” In her community, she’s seen a lot of general exhaustion. “The heart becomes weary,” she says. “It’s not that it doesn’t care. It’s tired, and it’s strained.”
In other words, there’s a limit to how much we can empathize. “We’re overwhelmed by the amount of suffering that is around us,” says James Doty, MD, a compassion researcher and founder of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. That, in turn, can bring up feelings of helplessness and despair. People can also feel emotionally exhausted and isolated. They can lose morale, act out or lash out in anger, or have a hard time relating to and caring for others. Not to mention that people have entered survival mode. That means they’re mostly fending for themselves and may be less concerned about how their behavior might affect others.
The reality is, the shitshow of 2020 is beginning to catch up with our ability to deal with anything, especially other people, if it hasn’t yet already.
“If we are feeling too many calls to our empathy, one of our defense mechanisms is to shut down and not care,” explains Eve Ekman, PhD, a contemplative social scientist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. If the fatigue continues, the results could be disastrous, leaving people apathetic and disconnected.
Historically, there’s a loss of human compassion during pandemics, Heinz notes. People view others as the enemy since strangers could carry and transmit the virus. “It pits us against one another because of the nature of germ theory,” she says. “We have to be reminded that fear doesn’t always mean danger.”
Even worse, many of our usual self-care tactics are off-limits right now given the coronavirus. In otherwise normal circumstances, we would spend time recharging if we feel overwhelmed: We might ordinarily go to a sweaty yoga class, do a high-intensity workout at an indoor gym, socialize with friends at a restaurant or bar, or fly off for a last-minute vacation.
With the lack of the usual tools at our disposal to recharge, here are some practical ways experts recommend to cope beyond seeing a licensed therapist (which can be cost-prohibitive).
- Practice paying attention to your body. If you’re feeling angry, sad, or lonely, it may be associated with a particular feeling in your body, Ekman says. Perhaps your shoulders are tensing up to your neck. Perhaps you carry sadness in your hips. Ekman recommends making it a practice to notice how emotions feel in our body as a diagnosis. “If you notice the baseline changes from minute to minute, you will have a sense of what’s out of whack,” she says, and it will help you catch things early on if you are spiraling. If you start noticing tension in your upper back every time you feel annoyed, that soreness is your telltale sign to remove yourself from that scenario by, say, going on a walk.
- Practice meditation. Meditation brings you down from panic and stress mode and shifts your attention to the present. Heinz recommends smartphone apps such as Mindfulness Coach or Covid Coach.
- Activate your “mammalian diving response.” This evolutionary tactic, which can be triggered by jumping into a cold river or body of water, shuts down our body’s panic mode because it suddenly needs to conserve energy to survive and forces you to breathe. If there’s nowhere cold to go for a dip, go to your freezer and pull out a bag of frozen fruit or veggies and shove it in your face (repeatedly, as needed). This is one of Heinz’s favorite techniques to remind herself to breathe deeply.
- Practice box-breathing. This is a strategy that Navy Seals use to stay calm in times of crisis. First, exhale all the air out of your lungs, and keep them empty for a four-second count. Then, inhale through the nose over four seconds. Hold your breath for another four seconds, then exhale through the nose for another four seconds. Repeat for at least five minutes.
- Limit how much news you’re taking in. It’s important to stay informed, but overdoing it and flooding your brain with too much bad news might actually be damaging, says Heinz.
- Spend more time in nature. Research shows that green and blue spaces are good for our mental health. When you’re outside, remember to breathe deeply.
- If you feel like you’re not making a difference, join a community group like Nextdoor, where you can offer to run errands for neighbors. “The simple act of doing something for another person decreases those feelings that you can’t contribute,” says Doty.
- Instead of watching traumatic images or thinking about catastrophic outcomes, educate yourself and take corrective action. Whether that’s in the form of understanding racial injustices and being actively anti-racist or doing your part to slow the spread of coronavirus by wearing a mask.
Importantly, give yourself a break. And if your loved ones are the ones with a shorter fuse, give them a break, too.