Being endlessly empathetic, while admirable, can run you into the dirt.

Emotional bandwidth is a lifeline in these times — and some of us have more of it than others.

That bandwidth becomes especially important now. Everyone is going through something as we adjust to this huge (but temporary!) life change.

We often depend on the compassion of our loved ones in times like this. After all, everyone needs a shoulder to cry on.

But what happens when you’re always the strong shoulder, the caretaker, the one with the solution to everyone’s problems?

When you’re constantly a pillar of sustenance to others, you might begin to experience compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is the emotional and physical burden created by caring for those in distress. It’s total emotional depletion.

Those experiencing compassion fatigue tend to lose touch with their empathy. They feel overwhelmed and less connected to their work and their loved ones.

This is something often experienced by doctors, social workers, first responders, and the caretakers of the chronically ill. While an occupational hazard for healthcare workers, anyone can experience compassion fatigue.

With the pandemic, we’re relying on each other more and more to get through each day. It’s normal to want to care for your loved ones during this time.

But if you’re not taking care of yourself while taking care of others, you’re at risk of burning out.

Compassion fatigue during COVID-19 can look like a mother juggling working from home, parenting, and schooling her children, now hiding in the bathroom to secure a moment of peace.

It appears in adults who had to raise themselves, their siblings, and the parents who failed them, now hesitating to answer the phone when the person on the other end is enduring their fourth meltdown of the week.

It’s ER doctors and nurses unable to catch a wink of sleep between round-the-clock shifts, or a spouse drinking more than average to cope with the 24/7 care of their partner who contracted the virus.

Being endlessly empathetic, while admirable, can run you into the dirt.

Compassion fatigue often affects those with intense empathy. Sometimes, those who experience compassion fatigue may have their own past trauma, resulting in the overcompensation of availability toward others.

Those who have a history of perfectionism, unstable support systems, and a predisposition to bottling their feelings up are more at risk for compassion fatigue.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue

  • wanting to isolate and detach from loved ones
  • emotional outbursts and irritability
  • physical signs that you’re holding stress like a tense jaw, achy shoulders, upset stomach, or constant headaches
  • self-medicating or impulsive behaviors like drinking excessively, gambling, or binge eating
  • trouble focusing
  • insomnia or difficulty sleeping
  • loss of self-worth, hope, and interest in hobbies
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Compassion fatigue is not hereditary. It can be addressed. However, it’s often misdiagnosed as depression and anxiety.

It’s also not the same as your run-of-the-mill burnout. Taking time off and going on vacation won’t solve the problem. Coping with compassion fatigue inevitably involves lifestyle changes.

Practice consistent self-care

We’re not just talking about bubble baths and face masks. While nice, they’re temporary balms to the larger issue. It’s about listening to your body.

Stress comes out in so many different ways. Ask yourself what you really need, and commit to doing it. If you can do something positive for yourself every day, you’re already on the way to healing.

Cultivate empathic discernment

Begin understanding what’s harmful for you, and from there, use that insight to create and assert boundaries.

When you know how much others are affecting you, you can get ahead of compassion fatigue by removing yourself from draining situations.

Boundaries sound like:

  • “I care about what you have to say, but I don’t have the energy to fully engage in this conversation right now. Can we speak later?”
  • “I can no longer take on overtime due to my health, how can we spread the workload more evenly?”
  • “I’m not able to help you with that right now, but here’s what I can offer.”

Learn how to ask for help

This is probably a novel idea if you’re used to being the helping hand. For once, maybe, let someone else take care of you!

Asking a loved one to make dinner, run an errand, or do the laundry lightens your load. It can give you more time to realign yourself.

Unloading and replenishing

Journaling or venting to your friends can help you release some of the emotional burden you’re carrying. Doing something pleasurable, like indulging in a hobby or watching a movie, can help replenish your ability to care for others.

And, as always, therapy

The right professional can guide you through pathways to relieve stress and work through the true source of the problem.

To avoid compassion fatigue, it’s most important for people to prioritize themselves. When your calling is to aid others, it can be difficult.

At the end of the day, though, if you can’t help yourself, you’ll be no help to others.

Gabrielle Smith is a Brooklyn-based poet and writer. She writes about love/sex, mental illness, and intersectionality. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram.