As a mental health therapist and former animal welfare worker, I have a deep interest in helping those struggling with the emotional pain that sometimes comes with this unique, rewarding, and challenging career or lifestyle. The reality of pet overpopulation, animal abuse, dog fighting, factory farming – the list goes on – can take a hefty toll on those of us that care the most. In fact, those of us who have high levels of empathy are at a greater risk of developing compassion fatigue (Figley, 2012).
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue has been described by traumatologist Charles Figley (1982) as the “cost of caring” for others in emotional pain. Long-term exposure to abuse and neglect, trauma, euthanasia, grief-stricken clients, etc., not only impacts our work productivity and satisfaction, but it can also affect us mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. If left unchecked, that is, if we don’t learn to manage the stress associated with helping others, our compassion satisfaction can slowly fade, leaving us feeling angry, depressed, anxious, physically exhausted, and emotionally drained.
It’s important to remember that compassion fatigue is not a physical illness or mental disorder. It’s not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It happens to the best of us!
Symptoms and Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue
Let’s take a moment to look at some of the symptoms and warning signs of compassion fatigue. Could you be at risk?
- Depression or feeling sad
- Insomnia (trouble falling or staying asleep)
- Frequent nightmares or flashbacks
- Fatigue or low energy
- Anger or irritability
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling of isolation
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Loss of interest in things
- Lack of motivation
- Relationship conflicts (personal and/or professional)
- Feelings of guilt
- Feelings of emptiness
- Low self-esteem
- Feeling numb or apathetic
- Work problems (often late, lots of sick days, etc.)
- Poor concentration
- Bodily complaints such as headaches or sore muscles
- Intrusive thoughts
- Feeling hopeless
- Unhelpful coping skills, such as substance abuse
- Negative worldview or outlook on life
- Suicidal thoughts
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, you may be struggling with compassion fatigue. If so, this blog is just for you! It is for shelter workers, volunteers, animal control officers, veterinary staff, rescue workers, cruelty investigators, wildlife rehabilitators, animal attorneys, ethical vegetarians and vegans, animal rights activists, pet loss grief counselors, and anyone else who loves, cares for, or works with animals.
I have personally worked in the animal welfare trenches, and it is my hope that this blog 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. I hope that this blog can bring together animal advocates from all over the world to promote compassion, validation, understanding, and above all, a sense of community and support.
Stay tuned for future articles. We’ll delve more into compassion fatigue as well as explore top tips and self-care strategies that can help to combat compassion fatigue, plus sneak peeks from my upcoming book, To Save a Starfish: A Compassion Fatigue Workbook for the Animal Welfare Warrior.