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The Cost of Caring Without Self-Care

Three consequences of helping others without helping yourself.

Humans are hardwired to care. The drive to protect our loved ones is rooted in our genetic framework. The natural inclination to care comes with many benefits, such as cooperation, trust, and coping, but what happens when caring for others exceeds our care for ourselves? In this blurred zone, our loved one’s reality becomes our own. A danger in this empathic process is that we may ignore our own self-care. We may focus on investing in our loved ones’ protection and may forget to take care of ourselves in the process. Here are three common consequences we risk facing when we care for others without caring for ourselves.

1. Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue is the emotional exhaustion we experience when learning about the suffering of others. This can come from a single occurrence, but can also worsen with repeated exposure. Researchers at the University of Bradford found that even viewing disturbing news via social media can have a stressful impact. The stressors of the experience may become absorbed, and we may feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and helpless. Without recognizing this impact and taking action, we risk shifts in worldview, difficulty managing emotions, decreases in cognitive ability, and developing sleep disturbances. Over time, we may feel less connected, and could even become desensitized.

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2. Secondary trauma

When caring for others, we may absorb their stress, but another level altogether is when trauma becomes absorbed too. Secondary trauma, also referred to as vicarious trauma, is when we begin to experience consequences from exposure to stories of traumatic events. This may arise when we care for someone who has experienced trauma, especially when their trauma narrative has been shared. However, individuals who are particularly at risk are those who experience prolonged exposure, hear multiple accounts of trauma, and are in a helping profession for a living, such as first responders, mental health clinicians, clergy, and journalists. In addition to the symptoms endured from compassion fatigue, individuals affected by vicarious trauma may experience flashbacks, nightmares, hyperarousal, and hypervigilance. Just as we would highlight the essentiality of seeking help when healing from trauma, we must also consider the importance of taking care of ourselves when helping others heal through their trauma as well.

3. Burnout

Sometimes we risk caring for not just others, but things (e.g., jobs) more than our personal wellness. Recognizing this, the World Health Organization recently amended the definition of burnout, highlighting that it is chronic stress, rather than a state of exhaustion. Over time, poorly managed stressors can cause burnout to surface. We then experience difficulty coping, and our idealism, energy, pleasure, and self-efficacy tend to diminish. Currently, the definition of burnout pertains to the work environment, which can be of particular concern for helpers. However, the term burnout is often used beyond this context to convey the exhaustion that emerges as a consequence of unattended stressors.

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The key to preventing these consequences of caring is care. We need to be willing to shift some of the energy we invest in others to ourselves. Self-care is not just a trend; it is an essential process that encompasses a variety of skills to protect you from the costs of care. Paying attention to our needs can help us help ourselves, and others as well. To prevent the price of compassion, you don’t need to force yourself to stop caring. Instead, prioritize your self-care.

If you believe you may be dealing with the concerns noted here and are having difficulty coping and improving your self-care, you may benefit from seeking the assistance of a trained mental health professional. The Psychology Today Directory is a helpful resource for finding a provider in your area.

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