As partner to a person with CPTSD, the struggle with exhaustion is real

Editor’s note: This was originally published in 2018

“As a partner to someone with CPTSD, do you struggle with exhaustion?”

A friend asked me recently. To be honest, I was taken aback and a little frightened because the answer was ‘yes’. I was fatigued, probably exhausted. Naming it frightened me and caused me to reflect on how I was really coping.

I spun around on these thoughts for a few days. Honest answers were: Yes, I was fatigued. Honestly, sometimes exhausted. Yes, it was and is a problem. Another honest answer: Yet, somehow I keep going. How do I do it? How do I and other loved ones cope?

CPTSD and the exhaustion of loved ones

The challenges of fatigue for loved ones of persons with CPTSD is not unlike other families where one member has a chronic condition. Like others who are caregivers, exhaustion is a big issue for partners and families. It touches everything – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and relational.

Unfortunately, as I’ve written in other blog posts, it’s challenging to find support resources for loved ones of persons with CPTSD. This unaddressed issue is alarming because chronic fatigue leads to burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and vicarious trauma.

In this post, let’s take a look at fatigue, exhaustion and being a loved one. I’ll share suggestions as to what’s worked for me and what might help you if you support someone with CPTSD.

Fatigue and exhaustion

Oxford Dictionary defines fatigue as :

  • Extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness.
  • A lessening in one’s response to or enthusiasm for something, caused by overexposure.

Exhaustion is defined as the state of being very tired.

Charles Figley, Ph.D. in the book Burnout in Families writes about related definitions.

Burnout: Physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations (Pines & Aronson, 1988).

Compassion Fatigue: A state of burnout/exhaustion as a result of prolonged exposure to conditions of another’s suffering.

Don’t worry about keeping the definitions straight. The main point is that all have the commonality of extreme tiredness and a lessening of one’s normal state of being as a result of living with chronic stress.

Signs of fatigue

Fatigue shows up as symptoms, some physical and some emotional, psychological or relational.

Symptoms indicating extreme fatigue may be:

  • Physical pain
  • Changes in appetite
  • Irritability
  • Decreased empathy
  • Disengagement from once-pleasurable activities
  • Foggy or clouded thinking
  • Never feeling rested
  • Feeling like you can never catch up or get ahead
  • Self-criticism
  • Guilt
  • Mood swings
  • Helplessness or hopelessness

But let’s not stop here. My friend asked me how I cope with fatigue and I want to give you an answer. Here it is.

Eight ways I cope as a loved one

1. Build up inner resources

Intentionally looking for opportunities throughout my day to bring my attention to life-giving, healthy, and calming experiences helps me feel better emotionally, mentally, and physically. What I like about this one is that I don’t need to rely on external circumstances to do it.

2. Find connections with others – and it doesn’t have to be big

I realize it can be a challenge to find others who understand the experience of being a partner. Finding small moments of connection from colleagues, friends, neighbors, or supportive family members can make a difference.

Regular assessment of commitments, activities, and even purchases can help minimize fatigue. I ask:

  • Do I need to do this today?
  • Is this urgent? Can it wait?
  • What is the most important thing?
  • Do I really need to buy this?

4. Be honest

It is better to speak up than bottle it up. Some things I say to myself, my partner and my closest friends:

  • I feel overwhelmed.
  • I need a break.
  • I am not coping.

It is fatiguing to keep real thoughts, needs, and desires tucked away.  Creating space to have real conversations with my partner or with another person about my needs is crucial.

5. Recognize and work at your self-talk

Self-criticism or self-judgment can be a cruel voice that likes to accuse when we are vulnerable (i.e., exhausted). Perhaps it says “You are not doing enough!” or “Why do you feel that way?” or ______. This self-talk takes advantage of fatigue by bombarding the mind during times of extreme fatigue and vulnerability. A couple of key ways I combat this voice:

  • Having a support system.
  • Keep a written and mental list of encouraging and inspiring statements people have made about me. I can refer to these statements and the positive feelings the words bring up when the critic gets going.
  • Using mental health services when needed.

6. What is important to you?

I continue to learn to trust I know what I need to do. Questions to consider:

  • What do you find yourself thinking about?
  • What do you long to do?
  • What is one thing you can do?

Maybe it’s a hike, reading a novel, spending time with your kids…the list is endless. Don’t brush off these longings. They might be clues to what you really need.

7. Learn about CPTSD and recognize when it is time to set limits on your research

Most of the loved ones with whom I have interacted are great at learning and eager to learn more. That is wonderful and at the same time, sometimes triggering. While it is important (and necessary) to know about CPTSD and mental health, it is also important to be aware of when it is time for a break. Listen to your body and mind when they are saying ‘it’s time to stop and rest.’

Managing exhaustion is an important part of being a support person. Being proactive and practicing prevention helps mitigate some of the symptoms of fatigue in the short and long run.