For so many right now, feelings of anxiety, stress and uncertainty have become a daily reality. Whether we’re trying to find a routine while working from home, perhaps compounded by kids adjusting to virtual schooling, or struggling to make ends meet after a layoff or furlough, one thing is certain: nothing is the same. Whatever the change may be, we’re all grieving for a lost way of life, the absence of things we may have taken for granted that, in hindsight, are precious - connecting with others through work, sharing a meal in a restaurant, gathering to worship.
It can be difficult to exist without the busyness of normal life, with its usual routine of going, doing and interacting. Or you may find the opposite - life is even more stressful now. Either way, it can be unsettling.
As we’ve seen from recent headlines, for those on the frontlines in medical or behavioral health care, overwhelming feelings of anxiety, hopelessness and exhaustion may take their toll with tragic consequences. Even if you’re not directly involved as part of your profession, many of our lives have an extra element of service right now as we care for friends or family members - listening, uplifting and supporting during an uncertain reality.
Helping can be rewarding, and it may be even more beneficial than receiving support - caregiving releases hormones to boost mood and counteract stress. But when prolonged caregiving becomes detrimental to one’s health, it can result in Compassion Fatigue: negative emotional, physical and mental responses to caring for others.
It’s inevitable that doctors, nurses, behavioral health or social workers and anyone who witnesses pain or hardship would feel the effects.
According to Dr. Robert Muro, CMHA’s Chief Operating Officer and a psychologist, “To be fully present to another’s struggles and sufferings takes tremendous courage and compassion. In the context of the current pandemic, healthcare workers are caring for others in the midst of their own grief, mourning the loss of freedom, routine and control. To sustain themselves, it’s so vital to create dedicated time for reflection and self-care. In the absence of this, the energy flows out but doesn’t get adequately replenished. And that’s when problems can begin.”
Compassion fatigue can lead to a downward spiral. At first, a caregiver may be invested and enthusiastic, but then begins to withdraw, makes mistakes and starts to view patients or family members as burdens. Next, exhaustion and anger set in, and the caregiver loses patience or the ability to enjoy caring for others as they begin to question their purpose. Finally, one reaches the breaking point and is unable or unwilling to care anymore, eventually experiencing emotional, physical or mental distress themselves.
So, how does a caregiver remain resilient, motivated and empathetic to ensure they never reach that breaking point?
Self-care is key, and it is not a luxury, it is essential. There are a myriad of ways to provide adequate, purposeful and meaningful attention to your own physical and psychological wellness, and they’re all attainable, for each one of us.
First there’s the internal work. Make every effort to remain self-aware and in touch with how you’re feeling, reacting and responding. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself credit for the outstanding work you do. Ask for and accept help and offer help to others in your community who may need support. Commit to authentic self-care activities - exercise, healthy eating, fresh air and rest.
Practice the art of self-management and the ability to just say “no.” Work on becoming proactive instead of reactive - address a problem before it reaches the boiling point. Choose your battles and don’t waste time on things that aren’t worth your energy. For more self-care tips, visit cmhacc.org/COVID-19.
As a side note, be careful of paying too much attention to your Apple Watch or Fitbit. Quantifying how we’re doing often reinforces the improper idea that self-care is “work” and provides opportunity for self-criticism. Collecting all this data can seem like a chore or become an obsession, leading to guilt if goals aren’t met.
Self-care should leave you revitalized, not depleted. Look for purposeful, meaningful activities to fill the void and acknowledge that any self-care is meaningful.
Focus on quality, not quantity.
When the world feels out of control, all of us, caregivers or not, have the power to choose how we react to the uncertain. We can make a concerted effort to focus on and appreciate what we do have, even as we may be mourning things we’ve lost.
“To grieve a loss is perfectly natural, and in many ways accepting the loss is the first step, but it doesn’t by any means make you ungrateful,” says CMHA Program Officer Grace Cavallo, LCSW. “Taking care of yourself is not selfish; it’s a way to cope and ensure you’re the best YOU that you can be in the midst of uncertainty.”
We’re all in this together. Taking time to care for yourself, especially in times like these, will strengthen the foundation that will enable us to support and empower one another.
If you or a loved one needs additional help, contact CMHA at 860-224-8192 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy Ogle is a Senior Grants & Communications Analyst at CMHA, and Christopher Marino, LPC, is an Assistant Clinical Director of Outpatient and Intensive Services at CMHA.
Community Mental Health Affiliates, Inc. (CMHA) is a private non-profit behavioral health treatment provider headquartered in New Britain, with locations in Waterbury and Torrington. CMHA partners with clients and the community to promote recovery from mental illness and addiction, treating more than 7,000 adults and children each year. Visit cmhacc.org to learn more.