For all the joys of loving an animal, caring for an older pet or one that is very sick can be exhausting and traumatic.
Equally, if you work in a care setting such as rescue centre or veterinary practice, you may find yourself feeling worn down or eventually disconnected from the seemingly never-ending stream of animals that need help and support.
You may find yourself feeling literally sick of caring so much or wondering if you have the strength to keep going down a path that may not have a happy ending.
These feelings are so significant and potentially debilitating that they’ve been given a name, Compassion Fatigue.
This condition is defined as “a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”
According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue can include but are not limited to:
- Excessive blaming (of self or of others)
- Bottled up emotions
- Isolation from other people
- Compulsive behaviours such as overspending, overeating, gambling, etc.
- Poor self-care
- Legal or financial difficulties
- Recurring nightmares or flashbacks to a traumatic event
- Chronic physical ailments such as recurring colds or digestive problems
- Apathy, sadness or depression (no interest in activities the person would normally find pleasurable)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Physical and mental exhaustion
- Denial about behaviour or feelings
People suffering from Compassion Fatigue because of their job may find themselves the subject of a higher than usual number of complaints or may be more vocal about what’s broken within the care system of which they’re a part. This can lead to more days off work, friction with other colleagues, tasks not being fulfilled and many other problems that lead to a further decline in working conditions.
Even if your Compassion Fatigue comes from circumstances at home, such as caring for a terminally ill or older pet, it can cause problems within the wider family and put the fatigued carer under even more stress.
Why does Compassion Fatigue happen?
When you think of the stresses and strains of caring for one or more animals in distress, it’s easy to see why Compassion Fatigue can set in.
If you know your pet’s life is coming to an end, you can feel like you’re living with a death sentence. There’s a huge amount of pressure to enjoy every day and yet you know that your worst fears are lurking around the corner.
At the same time, caring for an ill pet can be physically demanding and the source of significant financial worries, even if you have pet insurance.
You may feel isolated in your anticipatory grief, unable to share with people who don’t understand your feelings for your pet.
For people who work with animals in care settings, there is often the added frustration of knowing that resources are stretched to the limit and that the help you can offer is limited. And that, every day, more animals will come through the door needing your help.
It is exhausting to know that, for all the good in the world, some humans are capable of terrible neglect and abuse, the result of which is seen in animal rescue centres throughout the world. This can darken your world view.
It is perhaps inevitable that people feel they have to protect themselves from the overwhelming feelings associated with these situations or that they become highly fatigued.
The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project points out that many of us who care for animals have the kind of personalities that need to feel like we’re helping others and that this is where our self-worth comes from. We may have been taught from an early age that we should put the needs of others before our own in order to be a good person.
Where this message can be damaging is if we forget to take care of ourselves while we’re caring for others. You can’t give from an empty well.
How can you come back from Compassion Fatigue?
Does having Compassion Fatigue mean that it’s time to stop bringing pets into your home? Is it time to stop volunteering at your local rescue centre? Do you need to stop fostering pets in their twilight years?
Compassion Fatigue can be overcome.
The first step is awareness. Experts say that if you think you might have Compassion Fatigue, you’re probably right. The key is to be aware and to acknowledge your feelings, no matter how difficult they might be.
If you have Compassion Fatigue, it means that you’re a deeply caring individual with huge amounts of love and empathy. You’re also human. It’s okay to be exhausted, to feel stress or to face significant emotional challenges on a daily basis and to need support to manage it.
As with a condition like depression, one of the most important steps you can take to address your Compassion Fatigue is to prioritise your own self-care. Take time to eat well, exercise regularly, write about your feelings, get as much sleep as possible, and prioritise making time for activities that you enjoy, even if it’s hard to feel enjoyment at the moment.
If you feel you need the support of your doctor or a mental health professional, make an appointment to get the ball rolling.
It is also important to set boundaries and say no if something is too much for you. Ask for help from your friends, family or colleagues and talk about how you’re feeling. Make time for the people in life who lift you up and who fill the well inside of you, instead of the ones who leave you feeling drained.
A blessing and a curse
Ultimately, Compassion Fatigue is both a blessing and a curse. The curse comes from the symptoms, in the trauma and burnout that can leave you feeling low and disconnected from the animals you love so much.
It’s also a blessing because it’s a nudge to bring your life into balance and prioritise your self-care. With the right approach and support, it’s possible to continue caring for others in the most terrible of circumstances but to feel whole.
As always, know that you’re not alone.
Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support