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by Mitch Golant, PhD

Los Angeles psychologist Mitch Golant, PhD, is The Wellness Community’s Vice President of Research & Development and author of several books including “What To Do When Someone You Love Is Depressed” (Holt, 1998).

He Says: For many years, I facilitated support groups for cancer survivors and their families at The Wellness Community in Santa Monica, California. Discussions in family groups often focus on how members can help loved ones with cancer fight for recovery without becoming overwhelmed by the burdens of caregiving. One group member, a woman of 55, talked about how she became a “strengthened ally.”

“Once a week, I have lunch with friends,” Sylvia confided. “I see our granddaughter every Friday. I also visit our son in college as often as possible. When I return from these outings, I feel renewed. That’s when I can be a source of comfort to Bill.” Sylvia’s strategies can work for you. In fact, if you ignore your own needs for the sake of your ill loved one, you can experience “compassion fatigue” and “burnout.”

What is Depression?

Depression is a biological, psychological, and social illness affecting more than 18 million people. Clinical depression has two key components: profound sadness and hopelessness. Symptoms include changes in sleep patterns, loss of interest in daily activities and hobbies, appetite fluctuations, diminished productivity, self-medication through alcohol or drug abuse, and thoughts of suicide. Although 90 percent of depressed people can be helped by a combination of medication and psychotherapy, only 30 percent receive treatment.

While not everyone coping with cancer experiences depression, sometimes the diagnosis can trigger it. For others, the side effects of treatment can lead to depression. And even caregivers can become depressed. Burnout is the feeling of having reached the limits of your ability to cope. Unfortunately, burnout is common among caregivers. According to burnout expert, Dr. Herbert J. Freudenberger, you may be experiencing burnout if you have symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, backaches, lethargy, lingering colds, gastrointestinal upsets, or cardiovascular problems.

Burnout also has emotional components. You may find yourself frustrated and angry, empty or sad, pessimistic, resentful, insecure, or depressed. These are all expectable reactions to feeling stressed beyond endurance. But before you can be helpful to your loved one, you must know how to cope with your own situation.

Becoming a Strengthened Ally

As a strengthened ally, you provide aid and comfort through self-care and knowledge. You understand that a depressed loved one is terrified of being abandoned, and yet, may push you away. Still, there are many ways to revitalize your energy: Get Support Join a support group. Research shows that talking to people who share your problems reduces stress and alleviates isolation.

  1. Educate Yourself Information is power. Understanding the course of cancer and depression, the possibility of relapse, the recommended treatments, and the side effects of medications can help you plan for the future.
  2. Keep a Journal That’s where you can dialogue with yourself to vent frustrations and problem-solve without causing conflict.
  3. Maintain Friendships Continue your contacts with friends and family
  4. Preserve Routines Retain as much control over the routines of life as is reasonable.
  5. Continue with Hobbies Don’t abandon favorite pastimes that always give you pleasure.
  6. Remember That Life Goes On You are a separate person and are entitled to enjoy your own life. Attend classes, start a hobby, go to a movie, make new friends.
  7. Learn to “Let Go” Allow yourself to feel replenished by others’ gestures – a card or a kind word left on your answering machine. Music, religious services, or a video can also help you recharge your batteries.
  8. Seek Respite Realize that you can’t do it all. Allow others to do some caring in your stead. Reach out to them.
  9. Attend to Your Physical Health Eat well and get enough sleep. Tend to any physical ailments that arise.
  10. Trigger the Relaxation Response Biofeedback, meditation, yoga, listening to music, even washing your car can relieve stress. By focusing on breathing, you trigger the mind-body connection.
  11. Deal with Frustration A short fuse can be a sign of burnout. If these suggestions have not worked, you may need more emotional support such as a support group or private therapist.
  12. Self-Care and Setting Limits Identify when you’re feeling overwhelmed and be firm in delineating what you can and can’t do.

Being a strengthened ally means having the ability to derive simple pleasures in the face of uncertainty. It means sharing your fears and struggles with someone you trust. And, it can also mean having faith in your loved one’s ability to cope.

February 2008
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