I debated about how to start this post. A joke? A fun little scientific fact? Perhaps a personal anecdote about my own experience? Nothing seemed to really fit with this post. Perhaps it’s because this may be one of the most important things I’ll write concerning the work I, and many others, do in the animal rescue industry. Compassion fatigue is real and it’s vital that we understand it.
*Majority of this information is from The Cost of Caring: Understanding Compassion Fatigue and Burnout by Ilene Kastel. I highly recommend listening to the webinar for more tips and information.
What is Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue is “an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” In summary, it’s basically when you are caring so much for other beings, and not yourself, that you lose your ability to be empathetic.
It’s important to note that compassion fatigue is different than burnout. Burnout starts with high ambition and is a result of overworking oneself. The main difference between the two is that compassion fatigue is specific to those who work or volunteer in care-giving fields. Anyone can experience burnout with any career, compassion fatigue is specific to caretakers
Why it Happens
Naturally, those who get involved in the animal welfare community tend to have a lot of compassion and empathy. What drives us to these particular fields is compassion satisfaction. Compassion satisfaction is the joy from caring for other beings. It’s that rewarding feeling and the sense of satisfaction people get from helping animals. The same qualities that draw caregivers to the field also leaves them susceptible to compassion fatigue.
Being continuously exposed to suffering and trauma daily isn’t easy for anyone’s psyche. When you are constantly bombarded with emotionally difficult situations, it can become overwhelming. Over time, the overuse of compassion can lead to compassion fatigue.
Signs of compassion fatigue include emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms.
- Emotional: anger, guilt, sadness, apathy, anxiety
- Physical: changes in appetite, insomnia, nightmares, low energy
- Behavioral: withdrawal, isolation, impatience, conflict, excessive use of drugs/alcohol
This test is also widely used amongst caregivers to continually check in on their compassion fatigue/satisfaction.
Fortunately, by recognizing the signs, compassion fatigue can be treated.
How to combat compassion fatigue
When things are hard, we tend to be our own worst critic. It’s draining. Having self-compassion is one way to make things a little easier. When I’ve had a rough day, I can be really hard on myself. One thing my therapist has taught me is to talk to myself as if I were my friend. Framing it that way allows me to be kinder to myself and helps me keep things in perspective.
Along with self-compassion, self-awareness is another thing that helps combat compassion fatigue. Being mindful can help us to remain in the present and decrease the negative thoughts we have. Things like gratitude journals (highly recommend!), being present, and problem solving can help us be more aware. Something to avoid? Venting and complaining are not productive. Instead, focus on what you can and cannot control, and move forward.
Mental shifts will help ease compassion fatigue, but it’s also important to relax physically. Breathing exercises might be one of the simplest, yet most effective ways to calm your body. Visualization, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation are all ways to physically relax. Working out and proper nutrition are also keys to keeping compassion fatigue at bay. Lastly, sleep. Always sleep.
Beyond focusing inward, it’s vital to have a social support system. Therapy is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I’m a huge believer in the power of a therapist and think everyone should be afforded one. I’ve also found friends and my husband to be a huge source of relief after an especially tough day.
Perhaps one of the most interesting ways I found to combat compassion fatigue is creativity. It was found that engaging in creative acts increases neuroplasticity in the brain. So find an outlet, writing, dance, art, sewing, building, or whatever your heart desires. The creative process helps our brain to heal from trauma, which is exactly what compassion fatigue is.
Compassion fatigue is a huge topic and I can’t even begin to cover it entirely. My hope is that by sharing a little bit about it, we can all be more aware and watch for signs of it within ourselves and others. After all, if we don’t care for ourselves, how can we ever be expected to care for someone or something else?
What are your thoughts? What’s helped you get through compassion fatigue? Let me know in the comments below!
Cornell – This adorable dude can by shy at first, but after a little warming up, he’s super sweet. He’ll need someone to help build up his confidence and showing him the good life. For more details and to apply, click here.
Crumb – I don’t even know what she is but she’s so beautiful. Crumb is very shy and needs someone willing to go super slow with her. She was adopted as a puppy but returned to ALIVE recently. She’d love a quiet, patient home to flourish. For all her details, click here.
All photos: Margaret Rajic