What is empathy fatigue? What to do when you are mentally distressed by miserable news or stories

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The number of people who are mentally distressed by touching the images of the war and the news of the tragic incident is increasing. These are called “empathic fatigue”, which can also be caused by listening to cruel movies, sad novels, and the painful stories of others. Here are two measures you should know in order to make better use of “empathy” while protecting your mental health.

What is empathic fatigue? A psychological state that makes you feel painful when you sympathize with a person’s pain.

Do you know the word “empathic fatigue”? It means that you feel tired because you sympathize too much with the painful feelings of a person in a difficult situation.

mentally distressed
mentally distressed

For example, when I see tragic reports such as wars and earthquakes, I feel like I’m experiencing the same pain, and it’s painful and irresistible. When I hear the story of a person who has had an unfortunate experience of bullying, I feel the pain of the other person as if I were myself, and it becomes very painful ….

In this way, it is called “empathic fatigue” that a person’s pain becomes painful because he / she understands it too much and he / she cannot stay calm.


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News such as war, sad movies and novels, familiar conversations are also causes of empathy fatigue

Nowadays, the problem is that people’s empathy fatigue is getting worse by watching the video of the cruel war scene of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Also, many people unknowingly experience empathy fatigue by touching too much cruel movies and novels. Some people suffer from empathic fatigue when they hear stories of violence, bullying, and sexual damage.

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It’s great to be able to empathize with the pain of others, but on the other hand, being “vulnerable” to psychologically shocking information can lead to an imbalance.

By the way, our counselor’s motto is to “empathically understand” the counselor’s story, but at the same time, we always follow the following two rules so that the listener does not feel uncomfortable. I would like to introduce it as it will be helpful for those who have “empathic fatigue”.

Countermeasures for empathic fatigue 1: Draw a “borderline between time and place”

The first rule is to draw a “time-place boundary” so that you don’t have unlimited access to painful information.

In counseling, because the “consultation framework” of consultation time and place is fixed, it is possible to listen to any story of the other party and be close to the feelings within that framework. When this framework becomes ambiguous, counselors become empathetic and unable to continue working.

People who suffer from “empathic fatigue” are often exhausted by forgetting time to watch the painful news and listening to other people’s stories for an unlimited amount of time and times. To prevent this, don’t watch a lot of disastrous news (especially painful footage) for long periods of time. Leave it to excitement and don’t watch cruel movies and novels too much. When listening to someone else’s serious story, set a certain end time and wait a few days until the next day. I think this helps to draw the “border between time and place”.

Measures for empathy fatigue 2: Work for yourself and prevent “secondary damage”

The second rule is to work hard and take care of stress so that you don’t suffer from “secondary damage“.

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Being exposed to painful news and horrific stories can be a big shock to your heart, whether it’s your own or fiction. If the trauma caused by the shock is left untreated, the traumatic memories of the trauma will remain deep in the heart and will hurt oneself many times.

We counselors, who receive a lot of painful stories every day, value their time so that they do not suffer from such “secondary damage”. When I’m done with my work, I switch my mind, listen to soothing music, burn aromas, eat delicious food, and move my body as much as I can to care for my stressed mind. In addition, sometimes the supervisor, who is the master, listens to the story, which relieves the burden of the pent-up mind.

In this way, valuing your time and talking to someone you trust will help protect you from “empathic fatigue” (secondary damage).

“How to interact with painful information” that is important for valuing “empathy”

“Empathy” is an excellent ability unique to human beings. Empathy is carried by the prefrontal cortex of the neocortex, and this prefrontal cortex controls advanced human-like abilities such as empathy, reason, judgment, and planning. However, if you are too tired to sympathize with the pain of others, the essential prefrontal cortex will weaken and you will not be able to utilize the human sensibility of “empathy.”

"How to interact with painful information" that is important for valuing "empathy"
“How to interact with painful information” that is important for valuing “empathy”

That’s why, in order not to cause “empathic fatigue”, when you come into contact with an event or topic that gives you a strong shock, keep the “boundary between time and place” and take care of yourself and take stress care. It is very important to keep the points.

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