Compassion Fatigue: What is It?

cstock3smRecently, I was emailing with another acupuncturist about what she’d like to do in the long term. One goal she has is to work with animal shelter workers and compassion fatigue. Acupuncture has a lot to offer those workers.  I’d like to take a closer look at what compassion fatigue. Now and then, when Chey lets me, I’ll be having an article about how this relates to shelter workers and the volunteers who support them.

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, “Caring too much can hurt. When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface.”  For animal lovers, let’s remember that “others” can also mean animals, whether it’s a homeless pet, the pets our community loves and knows (consider how hard it is when multiple long time bloggers lose beloved pets) or animals harmed, endangered or lost due to catastrophic events.

The older name for the constellation of symptoms now called compassion fatigue was secondary traumatic stress disorder. And that’s it. We need to recognize that each time we find ourselves working to rescue a pet, help someone find money to save their pet, we are working in a traumatic environment and the prolonged exposure to such events can leave us  overwhelmed.  The awareness project mostly takes into account work place situations which can be very true for veterinary caregivers.

Volunteers, though, can also suffer. In fact, the very fact that there is so much that needs to be done and only so much one human can do can make volunteers even more susceptible to such fatigue. Further, the fact that people around the volunteer may not understand what the person is dealing with. Loved ones may not share the same level of commitment and passion, isolating the volunteer. Thus, there are fewer outlets for support.

Over time this is an issue that I will be writing about, not only to raise awareness, but to look at what is happening from the perspective of an acupuncturist and also offering suggestions about what can help. Even if you don’t have compassion fatigue as a volunteer, it doesn’t mean that those around you don’t. There are a lot of animals who need help. Let’s take care of ourselves so we can keep doing the work we feel so strongly about.



  1. Oh, this is so painfully true! Excellent post.

    Happy Thursday, kittehz!

  2. I don’t think there can be enough attention given to this topic – it’s something humans don’t talk about often, but I know it is more prevalent among volunteers and shelter workers than a lot of people know.

  3. What an important topic. Shelter workers, rescuers, etc. would do well to understand this better.

  4. Excellent post. I’d not heard of the label “compassion fatigue,” have couched it in other words, but those two words really nail it.

    It’s especially important to take care of oneself if one has other health (mental and/or physical) issues at play. But it’s also especially hard to do so!

    Not on the same level at all–I sometimes find that I get bogged down with all the sadness, sickness, loss and pleas for help in the blog world. I never learned to have a thick skin, my downfall is that I take everything to heart and many things, even via cyber space, trouble me deeply. So even at a distance one can become “fatigued,” though obviously it’s not the same as being a front-line rescue worker/volunteer, etc..

  5. Yep, yep, yep, true indeed and we are looking forward to more info!

  6. I see myself in this situation, not just having lost my dearest beloved soul kitty but also dealing with caregiving for a ill husband and caring for aging parents. It is fatigue. There are no let ups, it is every day, day in and day out. You do become mentally and physically exhausted. I can see where the same thing would be true of someone working very hard with rescue work too. The things that they experience from all angles is very difficult. No one is able to shut off emotions, so the weight does bear down especially if it is over any length of time.

  7. It is so true….. I have found that having a great group of friends with the same passion for rescue helps. We all joke that it helps when one of us breaks down – so long as we don’t all try it at the same time. My parents “support” my rescue volunteering but they don’t “get” it. And it can be hard……the joys outweigh the losses most days, but there are times it is very hard to keep going.

  8. Great post! As others have said, not much thought is given to this topic.
    Most people are not aware there is even a name for what they are feeling.
    I too look forward to learning more about the issue and treatment 🙂

  9. Such an important topic and one I look forward to hearing more about. Thank you for sharing.

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