COMPASSION FATIGUE In Animal Welfare & Veterinary Medicine

Compassion Fatigue is huge in the veterinary and animal welfare communities.

Signs can be depression, anger, anxiety, sadness, and more. But there are things you can do to deal with the stresses of an open heart.

I worked at an animal shelter for 5 years. It was the hardest job I ever had. Every day–another heartbreaking story.

A man turned in his sister’s dogs, saying she went into a home. She called a few days later after she learned her dogs were taken to the shelter. She was lucky, her dogs were still there. A man and woman pulled up to the shelter with a small trailer and said they had 33 cats to drop off. By 11pm, animal control had pulled out about 130 cats from that trailer. The woman had slept inside on the urine-soaked mattress. A breeder had her 20 dogs confiscated because they were in such poor condition—ill, heartworm infested, flea infested and completely unsocialized.  Animals were turned in because they were old and the family wanted a puppy or kitten, or the family was moving, and so on.

The stories, of course, go on and on. The point is that these stories are continuous and people who work there deal with the stories and the animals every single day. This wears on staff at shelters, sanctuaries, and veterinary clinics. They are passionate about their work, but there’s just so much help they can offer. And the heartbreak that they experience becomes what is known as Compassion Fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is a huge problem in the veterinary community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the first study to ever examine veterinarian mortality rates in America. The results were grim: the suicide rate among veterinarians is between 2 to 3.5 times higher than the national average.

The animal welfare community (sanctuaries, rescue groups, shelters) represent another area of concern. The stress of animal work can affect morale and how they view their job.

Psychotherapist J. Eric Gentry tells the Sacramento Bee:

“Animal care professionals are some of the most pain-saturated people I have ever worked with. The very thing that makes them great at their work, their empathy and dedication and love for animals, makes them vulnerable.”

Signs of compassion fatigue can include:

  • Depression
  • Sudden outbursts of anger
  • Feeling cynical or numb to what’s happening around you
  • Feeling isolated from family and friends
  • Exhaustion
  • Difficulty sleeping just to name a few.

There are things that can help though. Dr. James Fogarty, an expert in critical incident stress management and trauma debriefing, states you must do 4 things:

  1. Talk about your experiences in enough detail to connect emotionally with them again.
  2. Acknowledge and safely express your feelings to someone you trust.  Find a colleague you trust and use the 5-Minute Sharing to debrief (five-minute vent to take the lid off, cool it down.)
  3. Brainstorm and find solutions that let you take action
  4. Take care of yourself. Breathe

Learning mindfulness is proving extremely useful for people who suffer from compassion fatigue. Research shows that mindfulness reduces activity in the amygdala--that part of the brain that reacts to fear and anxiety. Mindfulness increases empathy and serenity among animal care givers. Mindfulness emphasizes staying in the present moment, being non-judgmental, and striving toward an attitude of acceptance. 

Research abounds on the benefits of mindfulness with:

  • Improvement in depression, anxiety and coping skills
  • Significant decrease in stress.
  • Improved self-compassion, serenity and empathy

One simple mindfulness exercise requires just a few minutes and can make a huge difference when in the midst of stress or anger.

The Three-Minute Breathing Space

1. Awareness: Bring yourself into the present moment by stopping what you're doing. Close your eyes and ask yourself "What is my experience right now..in thoughts...in feelings...bodily sensations. Acknowledge those experiences.

2. Gently bring your full attention to the breath. Follow each inbreath and each outbreath, one after the other.  Our breath acts as an anchor, bringing us into that present moment.  Breathe into the areas of the body or mind experiencing the tension, anxiety or fear. "breathing in, I am calm, breathing out I am still."

3. Now expanding our awareness beyond our breathing, we sense our whole body, our posture and our facial expression. 

The key here is to maintain awareness in the moment. Only that. 

Journaling:

Journaling about our feelings can be extremely helpful when feeling stressed, anxious and fearful. Therapy journaling can improve mental health and is also an excellent method of self-discovery, for overcoming challenges, changes and hardships, healing wounds, relationships and illnesses. And get insight into what you want and who you are.

Mari McCarthy wrote a book called JOURNALING POWER: How to Create the Happy, Healthy Life You Want to...., which provides great prompts to help us get started on our journey of self-discovery.

Here's a great journal prompt from Journaling Power: 

Take a few deep breaths and relax. Now write:

  • Three words that describe your physical state at this moment? Mental state? Which parts of the body feel good and which is holding pain or tension?

Spending time in nature: 

Forest bathing is spending time in the forest exploring. Nope, no jumping into the stream.  It refers to bathing our senses in all there is to explore in the forest–what we see, hear, smell, touch, taste. The trees emit a substance (essential oil) called phytoncide that are produced  by trees to protect them from insects and germs. These oils are also hugely helpful to our bodies and even help increase our ‘killer cells’ that fight off cancer. There’s a lot of mindfulness in forest bathing too. 

Our world is so complex now that we must explore ways to handle compassion fatigue and regain our health.

Michelle McKenzie is a certified intuitive life coach, a Reiki master/teacher.  She teaches Animal Reiki, Mindfulness, Intuition Development, and Tarot.You can learn more or contact her at www.MyPurposePath.com

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