Compassion Fatigue and Energetic Medicine

5elementsOne part of what I wanted to write about is the energetic pattern of compassion fatigue. I graduated from Oregon College of Oriental Medicine and have been a licensed acupuncturist in the state of Washington since 1999. That’s my bias and where my language comes from when I talk about energetic medicine.

The difficulty in doing this is that it requires so much information, maybe too much information for one post. I could attempt to talk about the energetics of each organ that’s affected, but that creates a sort of causation and understanding energy medicine goes beyond that. That’s something that is difficult to convey and in fact, I was in my fifth or sixth year of practice when I realized that something doesn’t go out of balance alone but always goes out of balance in relationship to everything else.

This is  a difficult concept to embrace if you are a perfectionist, especially around health. You can’t always have perfect health. Sometimes little things go wrong. However, so long as you wobble around on one leg and don’t go swinging too far from one side to the other, you’re typically fine. Your energetic balance is like that.

Compassion fatigue pushes you slowly out of balance on a number of levels. There is anger at what is going on. Worry that it what you do won’t be enough. Sometimes there is abject fear that someone you love will die. There can be shocking things that happen and there is grief, always grief, and that can get overwhelming. You may wonder about the emotions I’ve chosen but the organ systems of Chinese Medicine are related to emotions and each organ has it’s own emotion. It also has an element, a color, a sound, a smell and a season. There are relationships that are too numerous to mention in a short article.

But let’s go back to emotions, which are intimately connected to our physical well-being in energetic medicine. Each emotion has it’s place. There are no bad emotions. However, when any emotion hangs on and doesn’t move through to other emotions or you are constantly bombarded with grief and shock and anger or things that make you feel that way, the emotion can take over your life and that is a problem.

In an animal shelter, you may be subjected to a variety of difficult feelings, the shock, the grief, the anger, worry, and even fear. However, none of those feel good and those  difficult-to-process feelings do impact your body and your health. It becomes harder to let go of anger because it is so painful to feel the grief. When you are in shock you may feel nothing and not even know it.

Gallows humor is one coping mechanism. It works because it makes you laugh at the most horrible things. It is an expression of release more than humor. Physically we need that as much as anything. Laughter is indeed very healing, particularly in shocking situations. The laughter doesn’t have to come from gallows humor, but remembering that on a difficult day you can sit down in front of a sitcom and veg and laugh now and then, even if it’s not a big belly laugh (although that’s best) is great.

Gardening is wonderful for those worried days. If you can’t garden, a hike in nature can be therapeutic. Get someone to take care of you by having your nails done.

Anger is released through movement or doing something. Exercise. Martial arts are great if you are prone to anger because they have a level of attack about their movements even though their focus is not on combat exactly but on moving the body. Still, it releases those feelings.

Fear can be helped by finding something restful. A hot shower, a long hot bath, curling up with a good book, a cat and maybe some chocolate.

Grief. Grief is harder to get over. All of the above can help move through that, but it’s a sticky emotion. Crying does release it. Laughter can make it move. A hot bath, particularly with Epsom salts can ease the burden on the body when grief is there. We want to move through grief but often get stuck in our anger as we protect ourselves from this burdensome emotion. It happens. Or we remain numb and in shock, avoiding the grief. It happens.

Knowing that this last emotion, the emotion that reaches touches us and causes such pain is often the most difficult to release can help. Time and space are the best healers. Unfortunately it’s hard to do when you are caring for some many pets like in a shelter. You barely release one bit of grief or sorrow and the next has already walked in and placed a new burden. There is no relief. Is it any wonder there is something called compassion fatigue?

Taking care of the other emotions, the other organs can allow your body to process and move through the grief a little more quickly. It’s important then to remember to:

  • Laugh. If you do nothing else, find laughter
  • Nurture. The best ways is to nurture yourself is through nature or else have someone else care for you. Garden, hike, walk, have someone else care for you with a massage or a spa day
  • Movement. Walking is great movement, running or martial arts.
  • Rest. Get good sleep but  low energy activities that will allow you to rejuvenate like reading or relaxing to music
  • Epsom salts baths. They’ll help take the edge of the most difficult emotions. And they’re restful and feel really nurturing. While you’re there, consider listening to a funny show or reading a funny book.


  1. Oh, epsom salt baths is a good idea for this list. Saving this blog post. 🙂

  2. I’m definitely suffering from compassion fatigue right now (death of two family members and my cat + the care and fear for them that came before). Loved your post, and I’m looking forward to reading more on your knowledge of energetic medicine.

  3. Such a wonderful post. Thank you for the information. On my way for a hot bath.

  4. very informative and interesting. being a caregiver is hard work and I can only imagine what working around a shelter is like.

  5. Another good post and great ideas for learning to relax.
    Releasing emotional tension is very important
    and you have suggested many ways to do that.

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