Can caring too much hurt your mental health?
It’s called compassion fatigue, and mental health experts say it’s a phenomenon that occurs most commonly in people who work in professions like caretaking or who spend most of their time physically or emotionally taking care of another person.
Though compassion and empathy are wonderful qualities to have, they can also cause burnout, anxiety and depression if someone isn’t showing the same kindness to themselves they show other people.
“It is a form of emotional and physical exhaustion that is accompanied by some emotional pain,” says Sussan Nwogwugwu, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with Done. “These caregivers who continue to give themselves fully to this person that they’re caring for in that moment find it very difficult to maintain a healthy balance of empathy and also being objective with their own personal responsibilities.”
What are the effects of compassion fatigue?
Psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis says the mental health consequences of compassion fatigue can be severe, including anxiety, depression as well as thoughts of suicide. She says compassion fatigue may also cause someone to have nightmares about another person’s trauma.
“It’s feeling like you are just experiencing the same day over and over again, and there’s nothing enriching your life,” Sarkis says. “You aren’t having any kind of fun. You don’t feel like you’re getting any kind of break.”
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Nwogwugwu adds people who suffer from compassion fatigue are more prone to emotional outbursts as well as developing alcohol, drug or food addictions.
Sarkis says compassion fatigue can also damage the other relationships someone has in their life if they aren’t aware of it.
“Before you saw people as basically good,” she says. “You may start treating people in your family differently, because, when you’re in a helping profession, you see the range of what people can do to each other.”
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I’m struggling with compassion fatigue. What should I do?
Nwogwugwu and Sarkis agree the most effective defenses against compassion fatigue are therapy and self-care.
Sarkis says it’s important to make self-care a regular part of your routine, rather than waiting for compassion fatigue to happen before practicing it.
“Self-care has to come first. That needs to be proactive self-care,” Sarkis says. “Proactive self-care is, every day you do something to nurture yourself.”
Here are some tips for taking care of yourself amid compassion fatigue:
- Develop a personal relaxation plan: “It could be taking a bubble bath, dressing in comfortable clothes, taking a walk, of course hiring a sitter or even creating activities that could happen outside the home,” Nwogwugwu says. “It could be going for a drive, rolling down the car windows playing music and just anything that one is probably used to in the past that they can no longer do within that (caretaking) period. It could be reading a book, enjoying a night out … eating regularly, ensuring that they are exercising, and sometimes, too, meditation helps a lot.”
- Ask for help: “In psychiatry, there’s something called respite care, where you can delegate care to someone else while you’re taking a brief mental vacation,” Nwogwugwu says. “It is very important to involve all the people to assist. It could be the church community. It could be friends. It could be family members. But definitely creating moments where you can enjoy some quiet time alone definitely helps you to recharge.”
- Talk to someone: “It’s great to have friends in (similar situations) because they can understand things in a way that other people might not,” Sarkis says.
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