After serving in the Vietnam War, Charles Figley became interested in the concept of trauma—not only the lasting psychological wounds that people experienced after living through traumatic events themselves, but also how their loved ones often came to share those burdens. “Simply being a member of a family and caring deeply about its members makes us emotionally vulnerable to the catastrophes which impact them,” he wrote in 1983.
At the time, Figley—who now runs the Tulane University Traumatology Institute—called these trickle-down effects “secondary traumatic stress reactions.” Today, however, he often uses the term “compassion fatigue” to refer to the emotional and physical exhaustion that sometimes afflicts people who are exposed to others’ trauma.
In the nearly 50 years since Figley began researching these concepts, compassion fatigue has been primarily studied among people in “caring professions” like health care and social work, who are routinely exposed to pain on the job. But Figley’s early work, on how ordinary people can be infected by the trauma of others, is becoming increasingly prescient at a time when just about everyone is near-constantly exposed to…