For the last four years, Shayla Joseph, 49, of Thiruvalla in Kerala has been taking care of her mother, who was diagnosed with dementia. When the older woman’s symptoms gradually worsened, it became difficult for Joseph, a homemaker, to carry out her daily tasks.
“I have been close to my mother and love taking care of her, but over time, I became irritable, anxious, and sometimes even resentful towards my mother,” Joseph confesses. She started feeling emotionally drained and exhausted most of the time, even though she tried her best to take care of her mother’s needs.
“Frustrated and guilty of the way I was feeling towards my mother, I talked about it with my therapist,” says Joseph. Her therapist told her that she was dealing with compassion fatigue.
This state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion can occur when caregivers or helping professionals are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events or chronic stressors.
The cost of caring
According to the US National Library of Medicine, a level of physical and mental fatigue brought on by a diminished capacity to handle one’s daily circumstances is known as compassion fatigue. Caregivers, healthcare workers, family members of unwell dependents and other people in similar roles commonly go through it.
Joseph’s emotional health suffered from her ongoing exposure to her mother’s illness and needs. She struggled to handle the tension and the emotional demands of caregiving. At one point of time, she found it hard to understand her mother’s situation.
An inner conflict
According to Delhi-based counselling psychologist Arushi Gupta, “Compassion fatigue is like [being a] burnout from constantly being a caregiver, leading to mental and physical exhaustion.”
Much like Joseph’s experience of grappling with feelings of guilt and frustration, Gupta says people experiencing compassion fatigue often face an internal conflict ridden with guilt. Gupta says, “People in caregiving professions, or caregivers of loved ones, often have compassion ingrained into their core.”
Heed the signs
Hyderabad-based counsellor Mahalakshmi Rajagopal and Gupta offer a similar glimpse of the signs of compassion fatigue. They say the signs may include:
- A feeling physical, psychological and mental exhaustion
- Forgetfulness and lack of concentration
- Feelings of helplessness
- Physical symptoms like sleeplessness, loss of appetite
- A feeling of disconnect or numbness
- Feelings of disappointment, dissatisfaction and inadequacy
Caring for the caregiver
Gupta suggests, “The first step is acknowledging that this has been taking a huge toll on us. Often, it takes a lot of courage to even do that.”
She further says that it is important to understand the limits of our capacity for caregiving and set boundaries based on one’s own capability.
Joseph recounts her ordeal: “I could not step out of the house at all as I was constantly next to my mother. It affected my mental health to a large extent. I was always stressed and anxious.”
Her therapist advised her to take up her favourite activities to keep her mind refreshed and diverted from her monotony. “I started doing things I liked. They were a distraction and made me feel better. I like cooking. So I used to cook, go to church more often, and walk every day,” recalls Joseph.
Apart from those small activities, she started interacting with relatives and friends who understood her. By sharing her concerns with them she found an outlet for her emotional exhaustion.
All this helped her a lot and she was able to focus on the situation and take good care of her mother again.
Gupta says that it also helps to reach out to other people who have a similar experience. They may be people in similar professions, family members or friends in similar roles, or support groups. Reaching out to social support gives one the perspective and helps one to come to terms with one’s priorities, needs and limitations.
Which is what Joseph realised with her new-found attitude. “Not everyone would understand my situation and I completely understood why. As a family we are meant to take care of each other. And yes, sometimes it can be exhausting too,” she reasons.
As Joseph copes with her mother’s death in December 2022, she can also look back with some relief that she was there when her mother needed her, no matter those hardships.
“A hopeless reality where their work is going to be futile; the patient will not recover” – Arushi Gupta, counselling psychologist.