Another Mass Shooting? 'Compassion Fatigue' Is A Natural Reaction

Nov 9, 2018
Originally published on November 9, 2018 11:01 pm

Roger Chui first learned about the mass shooting that killed 12 people in a packed bar Wednesday night in Thousand Oaks, Calif., when he woke up the morning after and turned on his phone.

"And I was like 'Oh, that seems really soon after Pittsburgh and Louisville,' " says the software developer in Lexington, Ky. "I thought we'd get more of a break."

Chui feels like these kinds of shootings happen in the U.S. so often now that when he hears about them all he can think about is, "Oh well, it happened again I guess."

He's not alone.

Ginger Ellenbecker, a high school biology teacher in Lawrence, Kan., has similar feelings.

"My immediate reaction was, 'Another one. Here's another one. This is terrible!' But I'm not incredibly surprised," she says.

Both Ellenbecker and Chui say they feel bad about their immediate reactions, but science suggests that their feelings are quite normal.

It's a natural response called compassion fatigue, says Charles Figley, a psychologist and director of the Tulane University Traumatology Institute.

He says thinking too much about traumatic events, whether it's a refugee crisis on the other side of the world or a school shooting in our own country, can make people too anxious or depressed to function in their daily lives.

"We of course think about ourselves being in such a place, in which someone would suddenly burst in and shoot things up," says Figley. "But if we think about that too much, then it deteriorates our sense of confidence and our sense of trust and our sense of safety."

Numerous studies have shown that human service providers — doctors, nurses, case workers, counselors — can experience compassion fatigue because of having to constantly address, deal with and think through tragedy. Figley says people in these professions have what's called secondary trauma, which can build up and lead to compassion fatigue.

"Human service providers are wanting to help — that's one of the reasons why we go into the field — but we recognize we can only do so much," says Figley. "But if they're not able to process that then they gradually begin to shut down in order to protect themselves."

Another reason why people might find themselves feeling desensitized in the face of the latest tragedy is something called psychic numbing, which happens when the emotional response to a tragedy doesn't increase when the number of victims does.

"The statistics of large-scale killing don't convey emotion," says to University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, a leading researcher of psychic numbing. He and his colleagues demonstrated the phenomena in a recent study that found people are much more willing to donate aid to an identified individual than to an unidentified group of people.

Slovic says this is because the emotional circuitry in our brains is bad with numbers. "It can't add and it can't multiply, it reacts very strongly to one person or a small number of people that we can connect with and empathize with and we become emotionally connected," he says.

But when more people are added attention and emotion get diffused, response starts to diminish, says Slovic.

For Audrey Cho, a teenager living in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., reports of school shootings really worry her. She says it's hard not to think it could happen to her, but Cho consciously tries to not let it take over her life.

"This is very serious," she says. "But you can't allow it to be so detrimental that you can't leave the house or something, because that's impossible."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This mass shooting in California happened 11 days after the one at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. And in the time between those two incidents, there were several other mass shootings that barely made headlines. As heartbreaking as these tragedies are, psychologists say that when they happen so often, we may become numb to their impact. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: When Ginger Ellenbecker first heard about the shooting in California this week, she says...

GINGER ELLENBECKER: My immediate reaction was, another one - here's another one.

CHATTERJEE: She's a high school teacher in Lawrence, Kan. She says she did feel sad. It's just that...

ELLENBECKER: I'm not very surprised when it does happen anymore.

CHATTERJEE: A lot of other people feel the same way. Roger Chui is a software developer in Lexington, Ky.

ROGER CHUI: Hear about it on the news and you're like - oh, well, happened again, I guess. Looking back on it, it's kind of sad that that's kind of how desensitized we are now.

CHATTERJEE: It turns out that desensitization, the numbing of emotions when we've seen or heard of one shooting after another - that's a natural response. Charles Figley, a psychologist at Tulane University, says there's even a term for it - compassion fatigue.

CHARLES FIGLEY: Compassion fatigue is the fatigue of providing compassion and empathy.

CHATTERJEE: He says thinking too much about traumatic events can make people too anxious or depressed to function in their daily lives. That can happen when people see suffering across the world or, in the case of these shootings, closer to home.

FIGLEY: We, of course, think about ourselves being in such a place in which someone would suddenly burst in and shoot things up. But if we think about that too much, then it deteriorates our sense of confidence and our sense of trust and our sense of safety.

CHATTERJEE: Figley and other researchers have seen this in professionals who work in human services - doctors, nurses, social workers, people who deal every day with the struggles and tragedies of other people, he says, initially, people in these professions have what's called secondary trauma.

FIGLEY: Over time, there is a buildup of this kind or secondary trauma or vicarious trauma that leads to compassion fatigue or dysfunction, if you will.

CHATTERJEE: He says, in the long run, it helps protect us by allowing us to stay present and emotionally engaged with our family and friends. Another reason why people might find themselves feeling numb after a while is because the emotional circuitry in our brains is bad with numbers.

PAUL SLOVIC: It's a very sophisticated system, the feeling system. But it's innumerate. The feeling system can't add, and it can't multiply.

CHATTERJEE: Paul Slovic is a psychologist at the University of Oregon. And he studied whether and how human beings respond to big humanitarian tragedies, like famine or genocide or war. He says people care most when they hear about a single individual - say, one victim of a mass shooting or the drowned Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey.

SLOVIC: Especially if they're identified and you see their face and their name, something about them - gets the strongest response.

CHATTERJEE: For 16-year-old Audrey Cho of Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., news of mass shootings, especially school shootings, really worry her.

AUDREY CHO: It's hard not to think - well, this could happen to me.

CHATTERJEE: But she consciously tries to not let it overwhelm her.

CHO: This is something very serious. But you can't allow this to be so detrimental that, like, you never leave your house or something like that because that's impossible.

CHATTERJEE: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "MELANINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.