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All the Little Warning Signs

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

A friend of mine died last week from cancer. She was 52 years old.  Few people knew how seriously ill she was.  She didn’t want pity.  She didn’t even want sympathy.  The only thing she wanted was exuberance in life and dignity in death.  She successfully achieved both.

Sitting in the back of the church and listening to her eulogy, I wondered how many people struggle silently with serious illness and stress.  I suspect every one of us knows people who, despite their poise and polish, suffer tremendous personal anguish that remains hidden from the world.  They function day to day scarcely skipping a beat.  They’re the first ones to lend a hand when someone else is in a jam and they hardly ever grumble or gripe.  Other folks tend to dump extra work in their laps because they’re so good-natured and conscientious.

Then one day, overwhelmed by stress, illness, depression, or exhaustion, these selfless stoics collapse.  Nearly everyone in their sphere of influence is shocked because they failed to notice all the little warning signs.  Somehow it was so easy to overlook the growing fatigue, the waning enthusiasm, or the uncharacteristic irritability.  I’d like to say that doctors are usually expert at recognizing the subtle signs of serious illness and stress.  But the truth is, most of us are not.  Doctors, by and large, are so accustomed to chronic exhaustion in their own lives, they often overlook it completely in others.  There is no laboratory test for stress and no scan will screen for exhaustion.  It takes time and concern and insight to detect the subtle signs of serious stress.  And while many of us may be interested in the well-being of others, few of us take the time to develop true insight into other people’s problems.

Maybe if we all slowed down long enough to notice a friend’s fatigue or a colleague’s quiet mood, we could do something helpful before it is too late.  Maybe if we stopped placing so many unreasonable demands on one another, we wouldn’t be plagued by chronic fatigue and burnout.  Maybe if we made an effort to be more friendly and flexible in our daily encounters, folks would feel free to ask for help when they need it.

It would be wonderful if teachers and preachers and bosses and bureaucrats would promote empathy and compassion as much as they promote rules and regulations.  But until patience and kindness work their way into the culture’s curricula, we’ll have to rely on the insight of individuals.

Do you know someone who’s overwhelmed, worn out, dejected, or depressed?  Be gentle with him or her.  Cut such people some slack.  They may be up against serious stress or illness.  Be kind to them and to everyone you encounter today.  You may not have the chance to be kind to them tomorrow.