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Let’s talk about compassion fatigue

Let’s have a conversation about an important topic that can be neglected amongst those that work in animal welfare.

When we care for animals and when we have so much compassion towards animals, our compassion can get tired… and that is what we call compassion fatigue (CF), or secondary traumatic stress disorder. Compassion fatigue is the kind of mental pain that presents as an emotional and physical exhaustion that causes us to reduce our capacity to empathise or feel compassion for animals and for other people.

Sometimes this term gets confused with burnout. While compassion fatigue presents some components of burnout, it is not the same thing.

So, what is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue can manifest when components of burnout and secondary traumatic stress are present. This type of traumatic stress is referred to as secondary because even if you are not the one experiencing the trauma first-hand, you can develop this condition from listening, from hearing and from seeing animals, or other people, suffering. Secondary traumatic stress can sometimes present with symptoms like those caused by post-traumatic stress disorders, as the person starts to have difficulty sleeping, nightmares, flashes of intrusive images, or troubling thoughts that are difficult to put out of their mind.

Burnout refers more to the general exhaustion and lack of interest or motivation related to work. The person can develop feelings of hopelessness, the feeling that the work they are doing has no meaning. Burnout can develop in any kind of occupation and can be related to being overworked, or due to a conflict between personal values and the organisational goals or demands, or awareness of little emotional or financial reward for the work they are doing.

Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, originates more from dealing with victims of trauma, from animals, people who have been traumatised or are constantly being exposed to suffering.
You can view my short video on compassion fatigue here: https://youtu.be/0rXolXQLyaI

What are some of the signs associated with compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue can manifest in so many ways, so it is important to have an open mind and to be willing to identify the symptoms if they start to emerge and have a negative impact in our lives. Because if these signs are identified early on, it is so much easier to manage and deal with them before they build up and have a more serious negative impact.

Compassion fatigue can affect personal lives in the following ways:

  • Through being physically ill – experiencing headaches, fatigue or getting ill often.
  • Experiencing difficult emotions, such as distress, powerlessness, helplessness and anxiety.
  • Altered behaviours such as changes in appetite or sleeping patterns, increased irritability or becoming scared easily. Cognitive behaviours might also change, with common signs of this being the loss of focus, increase of pessimism or experiencing repetitive thoughts.
  • The loss of purpose and meaning – questioning the reason that you do what you do.
  • Effects on personal relationships, such as isolation from friends and family
    It can also have an impact on your work too:
  • Work performance can decrease, with tasks being forgotten or motivation being lost altogether.
  • Morale can drop, seeing a decrease in confidence, a loss of interest in the work being done or even the sense that you are undervalued or underappreciated. You may even experience a decrease in empathy or the feeling of being disconnected.
  • You might be more likely to experience the need to call in sick, or you might start being late more often, with less of a focus on the work you perform.
  • You might feel the need to isolate yourself from colleagues, or experience impatience with colleagues, clients or pet owners.

What causes it?

It is not the actual care and compassion towards animals itself that affects people’s lives. What can create the fatigue is the way that due to our intense care for animals, we end up forgetting about ourselves and our own needs. We forget that the compassion we have towards animals, must start with us, towards ourselves. And that focusing on ourselves is not selfish, it is not a weakness, it is actually a courageous thing to do.
I believe that in the realm of compassion fatigue, this quote, from Jack Kornfield, is one the most significant ones: “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
This is one of the most powerful and important idea for all animals’ warriors out there to remember on daily basis. It is very easy to forget to prioritise ourselves and our needs when we have so much passion, so much drive and so many reasons to give all our energy, our time, and our devotion to animals. But it is important to remember that if our “batteries” are not fully charged, we cannot provide the dedication, the caring and excellence to the work we do.
You cannot give from an empty cup!
Just like you hear in airplanes, you must wear the oxygen mask first and after that you are able to help others. Remember that you are important, you matter. Because without you, all the animals in need do not have a chance.

So what can you do to help symptoms of compassion fatigue?

Remember that taking care of yourself, having healthy boundaries, learning to say no when you are exhausted, when you are too busy or when you feel unwell, is not selfish, it is not a sign of weakness; it is actually a very courageous action.

Because you know if you want to be your best at the job you provide, if you want the animals you care for to have the best outcome, YOU need to be at your best!
Understanding and internalising this is one the most important gifts you can give both yourself and all the animals out there waiting for you. If you do not care for yourself, slowly you may end up being the one in need!

Implementing simple self-care routines on daily basis can have a massive impact in your life. And by self-care I mean taking some time each day for yourself, doing things that boost your energy, that brings you joy and take your thoughts away from the stresses and challenges of your work. It is important do not confuse self-care with self-indulging in unhealthy habits (such as smoking, drinking alcohol, overeating, etc.), which can have an initial soothing response, but in the long term may only cause more problems in your life.

Talking from experience from my own journey, allowing time for activities that allow you to be present can really help you in meeting your needs. Things that helped me have included:

  • Meditation
  • Regularly exercising
  • Resting when tired
  • Eat healthily when possible
  • Connecting with family and friends
  • Practicing gratitude daily
  • Doing breathing exercises

While some people may think they do not have time for any of this, remembering that taking care of your own needs first, will help you to be more productive and effective at your work. The animal you care for will thank you!

A final note on compassion fatigue

When dealing with compassion fatigue it is important to understand that a change in perception about the things you experience and see on a daily basis is crucial. Because it is not events that cause stress, and mental pain, but your interpretation and the way you perceive it, that cause you to suffer. This is the main principle of RTT the method I use to help people. The law of control says: “Your thoughts control your feelings; your feelings control your actions and your actions control your behaviour.” Marisa Peer
So, if you can change the way you perceive, the meaning you give to some of the stressful situations you experience on daily basis, without judgement, guilt, or shame towards yourself, it can really change your life. This will not stop the challenging or stressful experiences you may encounter in your work, but it helps you to re-program your mind to be more resilient. To be stronger, to continue performing the work you do in the best way you can.
And part of this process is to reprogram your mind, by changing the words you say to yourself every day. Because other people’s words may have some impact on you, but the most powerful, the most significant words are the ones you tell yourself, in your own mind. These words can shape your entire life. For this reason, choosing wisely the words you say to yourself on daily basis, even when you are going thought difficult situations, is the most powerful thing you can do for you and for the animals you care for. But this needs awareness and practice. It is more important to practice something in small “bites” daily and doing once for a long term. The tiny actions you take every day to care for yourself, as little or simple they may look, are the ones that will have more impact in your life.
That is where I can help you using RTT. Rapid Transformational Therapy® (RTT®) was created by Marisa Peer. It is a therapy style based on neuroplasticity, combining the most beneficial principles of Neuroscience, Hypnotherapy, Psychotherapy, Neuro- Linguistic Programming (NLP), and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). If you want to know more about it, and how it can transform your life, check this short video: https://rtt.com/whatisrtt/

Guest blog by Giana Gomes
Dr Giana Gomes is a veterinarian, a researcher scientist, a RTT therapist and a certified compassion fatigue professional. She is based in Singapore and this is her website: https://www.trueselfhealing.online/. If you believe you, your colleagues or your team needs support related to compassion fatigue, please contact Giana.

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