By Jennifer Blough, MA, LLPC
Several years back, when I worked at a local animal shelter, a co-worker of mine came bursting through the door with tears in his eyes.
“I can’t take it,” he screamed. “I can’t do this anymore!”
If you’ve ever been involved in shelter work or animal rescue, you’ve probably felt the same pain and frustration from time to time. While there is a popular misconception that all animal welfare professionals do is care for cute and fuzzy critters all day long, the reality is that there is a great deal of trauma, grief, and loss associated with this very rewarding, yet challenging profession. Animal welfare workers often care so much about the animals they strive to protect that it hurts, and they pay a high price for doing so. This cost of caring is known as compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue was first studied in nurses in the early 1990s and is common in professions that care for suffering or traumatized people or animals. While it is neither an illness nor a mental disorder, compassion fatigue can take a serious toll on those of you who care the most. Animal rescue and shelter workers are exposed to trauma almost on a daily basis, in the form of euthanasia, abuse, neglect, grieving owners, or pet overpopulation. These types of chronic stressors not only affect work performance and satisfaction, but they also can spill over into your personal life, impacting you emotionally, physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually.
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue can manifest itself in a variety of ways and affects people differently. Let’s take a look at some of the common warning signs of compassion fatigue:
- Depression or feelings of sadness
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Experiencing frequent flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or nightmares
- Fatigue or low energy
- Anger or irritability
- Isolation from others
- Appetite changes
- Loss of interest in things that once brought you pleasure
- Feelings of guilt
- Lack of motivation
- Relationship conflicts
- Feeling empty or hopeless
- Work issues (e.g., chronic tardiness)
- Feeling numb
- Low self-esteem
- Poor concentration
- Body complaints (e.g., headaches)
- Unhealthy coping skills (e.g., substance abuse)
- Negative worldview
- Lack of compassion
- Suicidal thoughts
If these symptoms sound all-too-familiar, you just may be suffering from compassion fatigue. If so, it’s important to note that you are not sick, weak, or crazy. Again, compassion fatigue is a very normal – and common – occupational hazard. It’s imperative, however, that you learn to manage compassion fatigue so that it doesn’t lead to burnout or a more serious condition, such as PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) or clinical depression.
Treating Compassion Fatigue
One of the best ways to combat compassion fatigue is through self-care. Many animal welfare professionals are sometimes lacking in this area, because they are so “other directed,” meaning that they often put the needs of others ahead of their own. They also sometimes struggle with feelings of guilt for focusing on themselves. The truth is, however, is that the better we care for ourselves, the better we’ll be able to care for the animals. Self-care allows you to recharge your own battery and build resiliency so that you’ll be better equipped to deal with the stress that’s so inherent in the field. Self-care can take many forms: exercising; eating a healthy diet; getting restful sleep; practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga; and simply engaging in a favorite hobby are all great examples.
It’s also important that animal welfare professionals find a strong support system, whether it’s family, friends, co-workers, or even a mental health professional. Those of you who work with abused, neglected, and unwanted animals need a safe place to express your feelings and receive validation without fear of judgment. If you suspect you may be suffering from something beyond compassion fatigue – such as depression – it’s crucial that you seek the help of a qualified therapist, especially if you are having thoughts of suicide. Therapists, especially those trained in compassion fatigue, trauma, or grief and loss, are usually able to handle the graphic details that you may want to share with them, such as your experience with euthanasia. They can also help you to recover from your own past traumas, process grief, rule out possible other conditions,, learn stress management techniques, and develop healthy coping skills.
I have personally worked in the animal welfare trenches, and it is my hope that this article will help you learn to recognize the symptoms and warning signs of compassion fatigue so that you can take steps to prevent, manage, or overcome it. Compassion fatigue does not discriminate, and it affects the best of us from time to time. I hope you realize that compassion fatigue is not a character flaw, and that most importantly, you are not alone. By developing healthy habits that include self-care and support, you will be better equipped to ward off compassion fatigue and cultivate compassion satisfaction, which will allow you to do what you do best – continue to help those who don’t have a voice.
Jennifer Blough is a psychotherapist, certified compassion fatigue specialist, certified pet loss grief recovery specialist, and the owner of Deepwater Counseling in southeast Michigan. In addition to counseling individuals and couples, she presents compassion fatigue workshops to local animal welfare organizations. She is the author of the book, To Save a Starfish: A Compassion Fatigue Workbook for the Animal Welfare Warrior. She shares her home with her husband and their eight rescued companion animals.