As Hurricane Rita bears down on Texas, the horrific images and stories from Hurricane Katrina are still fresh in our minds: desperate people unable to evacuate, pets left for dead, families split up and dispersed all over the country, jobs gone, homes destroyed. And it didn't help that initial relief efforts were disorganized and slow.
It's little wonder that many Americans well outside the hurricane zones are experiencing signs of depression and what some experts call "compassion fatigue." And it may not be over yet.
Causes of Compassion Fatigue
One aspect of compassion fatigue is identification. You can see yourself in the same situation as the victims.
"Depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome are serious psychiatric illnesses," explains Michael Addis, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and author of Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time: A Guide to Medication-Free Recovery.
"Some of the reactions to the hurricanes may have similar symptoms, but I consider these reactions to be within the normal range of reactions to disasters of this magnitude."
In other words, you are not outside the box on what you are feeling.
"Katrina overran us with no warning," explains Beverly Smallwood, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice at the Hope Center in Hattiesburg, Miss. "The effects blossomed out all over the country."
People have a deep-seated fear of losing everything, says Smallwood, who is involved in the recovery in Mississippi. "It's like the fear of death. You can't think about it all the time or you couldn't go on, but with Katrina it was raised."
"Some disasters just enter the national psyche," agrees Dana E. Lightman, Ph.D., author of Power Optimism: Enjoy the Life You Have. "These are things you just cannot believe at first."
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
Some people report sleeping poorly in the month since Katrina. Or awakening with the nagging feeling that something bad happened and taking a second to identify what it was.
Smallwood identifies some other reactions:
Addis says the tireless coverage of Katrina has amplified reactions. And something more may be involved: the loss - for now -- of a city that was identified in the minds of many Americans with fun, freedom, and having a good time. People may be mourning the death of fun.
"Media coverage can have both a positive and negative effect," Smallwood says. "Or maybe either/or." For some people, watching the coverage results in tunnel vision -- all they can see around them is tragedy and destruction. If you had a trauma in your past, this may spring to the fore again. Be ready for it. For others, though, the coverage spurs them to action.
"You have to take your own emotional temperature," Addis says. "It is easy to miss how you feel; most people are not good at this."
"I am on the East Coast," Lightman says. "We had a terrible summer weatherwise, but during the Katrina tragedy, the weather was nice. I could see people thinking, 'Do I have permission to enjoy myself?'"
Lightman says you have a duty to replenish yourself. You need to be in this for the distance.
"Say to yourself, 'Let me take in this energy so I can help,'" she says. This is not about ignoring the situation, she adds, or losing track, but you can be positive and give that as a gift to someone who needs it.
Some other suggestions for positive action:
People are social animals. That's why when many people they never met are hurting, they hurt along with them.
This is really a good thing. Your job is not to let compassion overwhelm you.
SOURCES: Michael Addis, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, Clark University, Worcester, Mass.; author, Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time: A Guide to Medication-Free Recovery. Beverly Smallwood, Ph.D., psychologist in private practice, Hope Center, Hattiesburg, Miss. Dana Lightman, Ph.D., author, Power Optimism: Enjoy the Life You Have.
By Star Lawrence
Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD
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