Compassion fatigue is often talked about in relation to first responders, nurses, doctors, and yes even therapists, but the ones who all too often get overlooked are the family members and loved ones of those struggling with mental illness. Living with mental illness can be difficult and even debilitating at times. Caring for those who are suffering can be difficult too, especially when the person is not willing to seek appropriate help for themselves.
Often times, I encounter individuals who are torn between caring for a family member or loved one and letting them go, to face the world and its consequences on their own. It is a decision that is laden with guilt, resentment, and conflict. This conflict can be internal or within the family system itself. This can lead to strained relationships and tension.
The fact is that there are too many people out there who are struggling with mental illness and do not receive the appropriate treatment. This can be due to lack of resources or an unwillingness to face the fear and stigma that unfortunately comes with being labeled “mentally ill”. Regardless the reason, caring for someone who is not receiving treatment (and even at times those who are) can lead to feeling burnt out. As paradoxical as it may seem, you can care too much.
One step in preventing compassion fatigue is to know the symptoms and monitor yourself and others for them. Common symptoms of compassion fatigue mirror those of depression and anxiety and can include:
- A sense of losing one’s purpose
- Muscle tension, aches
- Fluctuations in appetite- eating more or less than normal
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased agitation and anger, feeling on edge
As the old adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” When it comes to those who are in the role of caregiver, it is of the utmost importance that they practice regular self-care. Many times we become so ingrained in caring for others that we begin to neglect ourselves (and yes, that includes you fellow therapists). We are only given so much time and energy in a day, and if we do not take the time to recharge, our batteries are going to run out.
That is why it is important to take some of the precious little time that we have to care for ourselves. Practicing self-care is not about being selfish, as many people may think. On the contrary, appropriately taking care of yourself allows you to better care for others. Think of it like the instructions you receive when on an airline: “In the event of an emergency, place the oxygen mask over your face before you help someone else.”
It’s about finding balance, balance between self and others.
While there are many things that one can do to practice self-care, some of them are very basic but are often neglected. It is important that you take the time to take care of your physical body- eat healthy, shower regularly, get the appropriate amount of sleep, exercise, etc. Also, take time everyday, even if it is just for 10 minutes, to do something you enjoy.
Often those who are on the verge of compassion fatigue or burnout will begin to isolate themselves. While getting some alone time may be helpful at times, it is also important that you take the time to connect to loved ones. Rely on your personal network to help. You cannot do everything on your own. The good news: you don’t have to.
Sometimes our personal network isn’t sufficient or we reach a point where we need a little more. It may be helpful to talk to a professional about what you are experiencing. This could be a counselor, a clergyman, a teacher, a mentor… someone you trust to guide and advise. I have said it before, and I will say it again: I think every person can benefit from seeing a counselor at least at some point in their lives.
As a counselor myself, I have to practice appropriate self-care, and I have to be aware of times when I need a little extra support. That is one of the many reasons that I practice mindfulness myself. I am aware that being in a helping professional puts me at a greater risk for compassion fatigue. I sometimes find myself worrying about my clients, thinking about them when I am at home with my family. This sort of spillover may not seem like a big deal, but it can eventually take its toll if I do not tend to it appropriately.
Practicing mindfulness keeps me engaged in the present moment. When I am with my clients, I am 100% with them. When I am at home, I am 100% with myself and my family. Being human, I falter now and then, but practicing mindfulness means being aware of it. I and my family can tell when I allow my mindfulness practice to wain; it’s evident in the way I interact with them. I become more irritable, and stress rears its ugly head. Grounding myself back into a regular practice, brings me back to being- to being whole again.
Full disclosure: I would not teach mindfulness if I had not experienced its transformative ability first hand.
I have to take time to take care of myself, and you should too.