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The Emotional Drain of Watching Disaster Unfold

Experts share advice on beating "compassion fatigue" and staying constructive during disasters.
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WebMD Feature

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.

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Causes of Compassion Fatigue

One aspect of compassion fatigue is identification. You can see yourself in the same situation as the victims.

"Depression and posttraumatic stress syndrome are serious psychiatric illnesses," explains Michael Addis, PhD, 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, PhD, 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, PhD, 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:

  • You may feel odd or different all day.
  • You may withdraw or feel numb or blah, which is actually a protective device.
  • You may experience nightmares of being powerless or stumbling through a destroyed landscape.
  • You may get headaches.
  • You may cry more easily.

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