I can say I am a pretty strong person, both mentally and emotionally. I’ve been through a lot in life that would make some people crumble. Not that I’m bragging. I just have a lot of fortitude. Maybe it’s because I come from a family of strong women including a mother who was a street cop in Atlanta. If we’d cry, she’d give us something to cry about. We had to toughen up. There’s no crying in baseball!
I also co-founded and operate a nonprofit animal rescue. I see the best and worst in humanity everyday. There’s no shortage of animal abuse, neglect, and abandonment. I receive messages day in and day out via Facebook, Instagram, email, or text about animals in our kill shelters that are about to be put to sleep; images that you wouldn’t even want your worst enemy to see and that you can’t unsee. Never mind the actual hands-on, front line, in the trenches stuff we have to personally witness. People often say: “I don’t know how you do it.” Really, I don’t either other than I have a job to do, and if I’m a blubbering mess, then I can’t do that job. Sure, there are times when it’s over, and I pour a bottle of wine down my throat while sobbing on the kitchen floor. Thank God for my dogs. They seem to always know when mama’s had a rough day in rescue.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a nurse or caregiver, or involved in a cause that addresses animals in need, childhood cancer, homelessness, or poverty, anything that involves dealing first hand with the suffering of others be it human or beast, gets to you no matter how strong you are.
According to the Compassion fatigue Awareness Project: Compassion fatigue is a broadly defined concept that can include emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another. It is associated with caregiving where people or animals are experiencing significant emotional or physical pain and suffering. It’s likened to PTSD.
I can honestly say I’ve experienced compassion fatigue and have felt the effects of it - the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, anxiety, irritability, difficulty sleeping, depersonalization, and the guilt from not being able to save every animal on the planet.
It wasn’t until I became a certified life and business coach that I started learning more about this disorder and taking self-care measures to help treat it.
If you are suffering from compassion fatigue or have suffered with it in the past, here are some things you can do about it.
- Admit it. This is probably THE most important thing to do. Don’t be afraid to admit that you’ve had enough and need a break. The best strategy to address compassion fatigue is to develop an early warning system that lets you know that you are moving into the caution zone of compassion fatigue.
- Reduce stressful workloads. Reduce exposure to the more critical cases if you can. See if you can trade off with a team member so you have someone with whom to share the emotional toll.
- Take time off. I know we often feel we can’t take time off because something catastrophic might happen. The reality is, whether you take time off or not, the problem will still be there. However, by not giving yourself the luxury of stepping away for a day or two, you’re doing yourself and those your serve a huge disservice.
- Meditate. Meditation can greatly benefit those who suffer from compassion fatigue. It helps by re-shifting your focus, which combats rumination over stressful events.There are various types of meditation, which will help reduce the side effects an occurrence of compassion fatigue. Some of those include mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, movement meditation, progressive relaxation, and visualization meditation.
- Journaling. Journaling is a great way to bring about mindfulness and awareness and improve mental health conditions as a result of inner and outer conflicts. According to the Center for Journal Therapy, journaling is the “the purposeful and intentional use of reflective writing to further mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellness.”
- Speak with a professional mental health professional. Talking about it always helps, but you don’t always want to talk about it with your friends. They may not be equipped to deal with some of the intense trauma that’s a result of the suffering you’ve seen. Seek out a therapist who specializes in the areas of PTSD, compassion fatigue, empathic distress, and vicarious trauma.
- Reach out. Don’t go it alone. Even though your friends may not equipped to do the heavy mental and emotional lifting, they’re always there to lend a compassionate ear and to let you know you’re not alone. Or, join a support group of others in the caregiving or nonprofit space.
- Start a new hobby. Gardening, flower arranging, or learning a new craft. Do something that you enjoy with an outcome that gives you a sense of gratitude and accomplishment.
- Regular exercise. Regular exercise can have a positive impact on your mental health by reducing anxiety and depression.
- Do one nourishing activity each day. This could be taking a nice hot bath, getting a massage or facial, going out to a movie, reading a book, or simply taking 10 quiet minutes to sit and relax. Even the smallest changes can make a difference in a busy care taker’s or fervent humanitarian’s life.
One of the main reasons we don’t take time for ourselves is because we are programmed to take care of the needs of others. We feel selfish when we do so. However, you’re no good to others if you’re not good to yourself. By practicing these sustainable self-care techniques daily, you can help manage and lessen the disruptive issues associated with compassion fatigue.
This blog post was inspired by and is dedicated in memory of Victory, a rescue dog who in just a few hours impacted the lives of so many. Run free sweet girl. Your life mattered.