When the world feels too much... managing empathy fatigue, grief, burnout, and overwhelmFeatured

Sometimes, the world can feel too much. We are bombarded with tragedy on the news, hate on social media, and pain in our own lives, and we’re often expected to carry on like normal and manage the chaos and stress. It feels impossible at times…

And yet, it is possible to create margin, care for yourself, and prevent burnout while experiencing grief and empathy every day. I’m here to tell you how.

I’ll start with the good and bad news, which is that our bodies are designed to heal.

Why is that bad news? Because if you try to stuff emotions down or ignore pain and trauma, your body will scream louder until you give it the attention it needs and deserves. In fact, your unresolved pain and/or trauma will look for a way to release (sometimes occurring at the most inopportune times), spilling out onto the people around you personally, professionally, or both. And if you’re really good at locking it in or resisting, you might discover your body develops an illness to try to get rid of the stored junk you’re keeping in. It might seem counter-intuitive that we could develop a disease as a way for our bodies to help us heal, but sometimes that dis-ease is a way to restore flow and ease again.

The good news with our bodies being designed to heal is that they are an active participant in this life and are working with and for us IF we allow it. We are the biggest obstacles that get in our own way. When we can recognize our patterns, process our emotions, grieve, prioritize self-care, and give ourselves the rest we need, we can create lives where we can not only heal, but thrive.

If you’re wondering how I know this, it’s because my daughter was diagnosed with a terminal illness at 2 months old and died at 21 months old. I spent years in survival mode–wondering each day if it would be her last, and then dealing with PTSD after she was gone. I developed auto-immune conditions, struggled with depression and anxiety, and felt incredibly alone. As I learned how to calm my nervous system, grieve, and heal, I started a nonprofit to help others do the same.

I’ve been supporting people facing trauma and loss for over a decade now, and I train others how to do it, too. To be clear, I am not a doctor and what I write is for informational purposes and should not replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have questions about a medical condition, always seek the advice of a doctor or other qualified health professional.

When I work with leaders in the workplace on how to manage grief and create cultures of caring, or train photographer volunteers who help us preserve memories for people facing a terminal diagnosis, I repeat over and over again: “If you sacrifice yourself or the people you love for the sake of helping others, we all lose.”

I’d like to share three things to learn and implement in your life to help you thrive, even when facing hard things. I will cover the basics of each of these topics to keep it brief for the sake of length, but please know there is so much more to dive into beyond what I’ll discuss here.

1. Regulating Your Nervous System

When your nervous system senses a threat, it goes into survival mode, which means your amygdala takes over. In this state, your prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for rational thinking, empathy, and other skills valuable for connection with others) goes offline so you can focus on keeping yourself alive, and the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses are immediately accessible.

In the day-to-day world, you can probably imagine how getting stuck in survival mode could wreak havoc on relationships and leadership abilities… including irrational outbursts, lack of empathy, inability to put others first, uncontrollable emotions, and more. Learning to regulate your nervous system is an underrated skill that can help prevent negative reactions.

Dr. Jerome, a neurologist in Atlanta, helped explain this to me many years ago with the analogy of a bear. If a bear is chasing you, your only goal is to survive. You don’t have time to eat and digest your food for energy. You don’t have time to call a friend. You don’t have time to sit and think. You need to immediately run as fast as you can, so your brain works with your body to act fast. And as a result, your amygdala takes over to release adrenaline and cortisol to get the blood and oxygen flowing faster, muscles pumping, and kick your butt in gear. And if you’re unsuccessful, you die. But if you’re successful, you outrun the bear or find a place to take shelter and you survive. You can sit and rest, grab a drink of water or a bite to eat, and your brain and body can return to “normal.”

But in today’s world, we’re typically not chased by bears, we’re chased by deadlines, phone notifications, road rage, fear-mongering news, social media algorithms that want to make us angry, and things that constantly bombard our system with threats.

So what can we do? We can learn to listen to our bodies and give ourselves rest. When we’re actively in survival mode, we need to signal to our brain that everything is okay. The bear is gone and we’re safe. We’ve survived. We can rest.

When you’re able to recognize your outbursts or inability to control a reaction, you can take a deep breath and get curious. “What is the threat I was perceiving? What is the deeper issue I am frustrated about? How can I respond in a way that is thoughtful and still honors the boundaries that were crossed? What do I really care about here?”

When you’re able to breathe deeply repeatedly, you’re signaling to your brain that you no longer need to outrun the bear–you’re safe. There are a number of different breathing exercises that can help you with this: the 4-7-8 breath and box breathing are two of my favorites if you want to Google them. Meditation can also be helpful if that’s a skill you’ve developed (it’s never too late to start). Another helpful tool is the butterfly hug if you respond better to touch.

Once we calm our nervous system, our prefrontal cortex can come back online where we can benefit from all of the higher functions that make us caring, connected humans. Leaders who are safe and thriving can support their teams with safe environments too, so that creativity, empathy, and innovation can expand in all facets of life and business.

2. Taking Care of Yourself & Loving Yourself

Regulating your nervous system requires us to care for ourselves, set boundaries, and create safety. There are subtle ways we have been taught to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, and the people-pleasing needs to stop:

  • When boundaries are crossed and we don’t stand up for ourselves to avoid making anyone else feel uncomfortable.
  • When we say yes when we want to say no.
  • When we have real human basic needs to meet for ourselves, but we take care of someone else with those needs and deprive ourselves of that love and care.
  • When we stuff down the swell of emotions because someone told us to “stop crying” or “be strong” or “toughen up” or “you’re too _____” (much/sensitive/emotional/etc.)

To care for ourselves and understand our boundaries, we need to listen. It’s impossible to hear your body when you’re going a mile a minute, your schedule is full, and you fill every bit of silence with something–even if that something is good music or a helpful podcast. Developing a practice of being still and listening to your body is not complex, but it does require us to be aware and mindful in a world full of distractions.

As we listen to our bodies and get curious, we’ll begin to understand how we can best take care of ourselves. Have you ever asked your body what it needs at this moment? Have you ever felt a tinge of pain in your body and asked your body what it is trying to tell you? Have you ever felt a swell of emotions and actually let it out to uncover what was behind it? When we get curious, we can hear our bodies speaking to us and learn just how much they’re trying to help us in this life.

If you’re just starting out, here are a few ideas to build your self-awareness to care for yourself:

  • Journal and make notes of your thoughts and emotions as often as you can. It can be really helpful to label what you’re feeling as you’re processing.
  • Pay attention to how you feel after eating and drinking day to day.
  • Be aware of the flow of your body–breath, heartbeat, feelings, digestion, etc. and notice patterns of when they change.
  • Create a safe space to rest and listen (where you won’t be interrupted when possible).
  • Pay attention to your body’s reactions. For example, do you notice a trend of feeling short of breath when you have a meeting with your boss? Or maybe you start to recognize you struggle with drainage in your throat when you eat dairy or sugar… These are things to listen to and get curious about.

As I mentioned earlier, when our nervous systems are on high alert or overwhelmed, a way we can care for ourselves is to create safe spaces to just be… To rest. There are so many types of rest we can practice based on what our bodies tell us we need at different times.

Here are 8 types of rest I learned from my therapist:

  1. Technology Rest–giving yourself a true break from screens, notifications, email, social media, and other stressors that come with it.
  2. Social Rest–taking a break from people who drain your energy or avoiding social situations that could add to your stress, such as giving yourself permission to keep your camera off on a Zoom call.
  3. Sensory Rest–being intentional with the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and tastes you surround yourself with. Maybe you request the house to yourself for a night so you can control every aspect of the environment to have a cozy night on the couch with candlelight, soft music, a fuzzy blanket, and warm tea without any unwanted sensory inputs.
  4. Creative Rest–giving yourself space to play, make things, and create just for fun, with full permission to suck at it and not have a finished product when you’re done.
  5. Physical Rest–taking naps, having a day lounging on the couch to give our muscles a break OR practicing yoga, massage, stretching, and other gentle activities to engage muscles in a way that helps us connect with our bodies and improve flow.
  6. Spiritual Rest–giving yourself space to meditate, pray, read, and connect spiritually in ways that are fulfilling and purposeful, not out of obligation or guilt.
  7. Mental Rest–taking breaks during the work day or days off during the week where you don’t have to think about work. Making notes or journaling to get things out of your brain and on paper.
  8. Emotional Rest–creating space to be honest with yourself and feel your feelings, releasing anything that’s stored up in healthy ways, and taking a break from anything that would add emotional stress to your life.

Resting helps us create margins in our lives, allowing us space to hold hard things. Maybe it’s a coworker having a meltdown at work or a kid throwing a tantrum at bedtime. Maybe it’s a friend suffering a loss or watching your plans unravel. When we meet stressors in our lives and have rested well, it’s much easier to stay calm and not have our survival mode kick in.

But when we experience someone else’s pain (meltdown, trauma, etc.), and we are overwhelmed ourselves, we can reach a tipping point where our brain can’t take it anymore and we have a negative reaction, too. The really scary thing about getting to this point is that it’s easy to see the world through your wounds instead of as it truly is, which can cause all sorts of assumptions and unintended consequences.

As we get deeper into the healing work, we discover our wounds tend to run deep. Depending on our trauma, pain, and programming from childhood, we can develop beliefs about ourselves that are at the root of a lot of life’s pain and destructive patterns:

  • You’re not good enough
  • You’re not loveable
  • You’re not worthy
  • You’re bad/broken
  • You’re not enough

It’s our job to face the roots of our wounds, tend to them, and heal them–all while loving ourselves. Deeper healing work requires us to focus on learning how to receive love. To believe we’re good enough. To believe we’re loveable. To believe we’re worthy. To believe we’re good. To believe we’re enough.

The hardest part about this is that no one can do this work for you. You have to love yourself. You have to receive that love.

There have been so many times I have wanted to step in and save my friends or even random strangers I meet, but it’s just not possible. Although we can support and love each other in the midst of suffering, the deeper healing work to tend to your wounds and maintain a healthy mindset is yours to do.

3. Choosing Life With Intention, Not By Default

There are so many people in the world who have disconnected from themselves in order to avoid pain and past trauma. And as a result, they are going through life on auto-pilot. They don’t take the initiative to create their dreams, and instead, they waste this one precious and wild life by letting things default.

When we can stay grounded and present, we have a much greater capacity to choose the life we want. As we heal, the triggers of our wounds fade. Our emotions flow. Our breath keeps us connected. Instead of reacting to everything with our brain offline, we can choose how we show up in each moment with intention. We can co-create our dreams with the universe and watch miracles happen.

We can be intentional with every “yes” knowing that we’re also saying “no” to something else and vice versa. We protect our time, energy, emotions, and relationships to build the life of our dreams.

I know we’re probably sick of hearing about gratitude and gratitude journals, but hear me out… Gratitude is a big part of this. Gratitude is not dismissing your pain or minimizing what you’re going through to be grateful. Gratitude is looking for what you do have that you can genuinely be grateful for, no matter what season of life you’re in. Gratitude helps us take off the glasses of our wounds so we can see the world through a higher perspective. It’s an incredible practice to cultivate resilience and positive energy. Here’s an article for further reading on the science and benefits of gratitude.

So here are a few questions to reflect on as we conclude:

What is the energy that you are sending out into the world?

Are you giving off fumes with nothing in the tank? Are you spilling toxic pain around you (maybe without realizing it)? Are you overflowing with love? What is coming out of your being each day?

Take a moment to reflect on what you’re grateful for, the things that bring you joy, the actions you do (or others do) that make you feel loved, the places where you can feel at peace, and the way you rest well…

How can we incorporate things that bring us joy, love, rest, and peace into our lives on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual rhythm?

Bottom line is this: you have incredible value in this world and we need 100% of you to be present and active in this life–not just the fumes left in your tank.

I hope you’ll join me in building a world where we can heal and thrive together!