I’ve never hidden the fact that caring for someone who is depressed is easy. These days it often feels as though the stresses and strains of life leaves precious little in the way of emotional reserves for others. Helping sometimes comes at a cost to ourselves and compassion fatigue can affect the most resilient of us.
So, what exactly is compassion fatigue? Susanne Babbel, Ph.D.,a psychologist specializing in trauma and depression, considers it a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Babbel says, symptoms range from anger, anxiety, sleep disturbances, feelings of powerlessness and nightmares:
‘Caregivers who reported experiencing compassion fatigue, expressed such feelings as, "I frequently dissociated and felt that I walked around in an altered state. I didn’t realize that I had been in a gray space all year. That had sort of creeped in" and "It got to the point where I would feel physically sick before the appointment and feeling nauseous."’
If these features sound familiar it’s almost certain you have character traits like commitment, dedication and willingness to go the extra mile. You’re probably energetic, capable and caring and you have a sense of responsibility that extends to others while you are disadvantaged. I know you. I’ve met you and many others like you. I’ve seen how you’ve become overwhelmed and strung-out and despite it all you’re continuing to forge ahead.
That cough or sniffle you can’t seem to shake off is just one of your symptoms. It comes along with aches and pains, stomach complaints and that curious sense of apathy that sometimes hangs around. You used to brush off minor irritations but now they cause you to feel frustrated and angry. Every so often you feel a bit sorry for yourself. You hate the burden, the one-sidedness of it all and the way it affects your own life. But then you aren’t the kind of person to wallow in self-pity and so you pull yourself out of it.
Have you ever wondered what your superpower might be if you had one? Well, you’re already using it - but what sustains you is also your kryptonite. Those fine characteristics you possess need to be calibrated to the situation you are in. You can’t care for anyone effectively if your own physical and emotional needs are put aside. Striking a balance between your needs and the needs of your depressed partner is vital if you are to remain healthy and continue to provide effective support. Yes, your partner is feeling vulnerable, misunderstood, helpless, and all the grim symptoms that come with depression. Yes, they need special help and support during this difficult time; but of equal importance is you.
I’ve set the scene for my next Sharepost which will focus on self-help tips to strike a balance and avoid the trap of compassion fatigue.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.