Back to Basics: Compassion Fatigue and More on Images

I had some comments on the last post about the quote that is attributed to Johnny Depp that goes like this, ““If you don’t like seeing pictures of violence towards animals, you need to stop the violence, not the pictures.”

A few people disagreed and I’d like to point out some problems, because, after all, this is my blog and if I want to beat this issue into the ground I can do that.

First, to the person who said that we shouldn’t look at them and like on a television “change the channel,” let me point out that this is about Facebook. There are no changing channels. This is like watching your nice safe television show and the worst part of the most gruesome show you never wanted to watch shows up without warning in the middle of your nice safe place. There is no article. There is only the image and it’s on my Facebook feed.

While many of us have unfriended people who share those, Facebook still loves the share. So if I have friends who are willing to do the work of staying informed via Facebook and comment on an image like that, Facebook may decide to see if I want to “like” that page by showing me the gruesome image or just want to share that my friend commented on that image. This isn’t about opening an article and reading it and objecting to the content, this is about Facebook, which I pointed out in the very first paragraph of the last article.

Now, to the person who called me silly (yes this is the same person if you are keeping score from the last section of comments), no it’s not silly. I am writing about Compassion Fatigue. Let’s talk about compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue, as I have said earlier in this series is rather like PTSD except you haven’t experience the trauma. You are working with people or animals who have been traumatized. At one time this was called Secondary PTSD.

One aspect that comes up is that the person keeps working and working and nothing seems to change. The quote implies that anyone complaining about those images does nothing for animal abuse, yet every single person I have had complain about those images is a hard working animal shelter volunteer or veterinary worker, all of whom are at risk for compassion fatigue. The quote completely negates their efforts by telling them that if the problem still exists their efforts are worthless and they need to suck it up.  And by the way, yes the ONLY people I know complaining about those images are those who work closely with abused animals.

That’s the problem with that quote. It does nothing to further the cause of stopping animal abuse and in fact, by increasing the potential for compassion fatigue among those who do, it could actually hinder the cause.

And although according the writer of the comment, the quote was clearly not intended for those people, please point out in the language of the quote where it specifies this. It does not. Therefore, everyone is included.

Now, another person talked about educating people. Several issues. First, people should not have to be educated that setting an animal on fire is wrong. Nor should they have to be educated that cutting them open gruesomely is wrong. Second, there is nothing about those images that educate. They horrify those of us who work in those situations and to a certain sort of abuser, they titilate.

And one last time: I’m talking about images (very little or no text) on Facebook. There were no articles about animal abuse. Only images.

But even if they were “educational” this brings us to the best comment and the one I think deserves the most discussion, Deb Barnes‘ comment here, “The issue is that most of us in our niche already know the problems, so we end up preaching to the choir. It’s not just photos, it’s valuable information and resources on spay/neuter, ending cruelty, etc. – the information keeps getting recycled in our same circles and it wears us out. How do we get the information out to the large masses in the mainstream where it is needed the most?”

I don’t have an answer to that but I think as animal rescuers and workers we need to consider how to get our messaging out there. I also think that we need to consider what the message is. Do we try and horrify people about what can go on or do we try and unify people with the understanding that we are all one, that all creatures desire to live and to have a happy life? Can we try and teach people that compassion for all life means a better life? Can we attempt to heal the wounds of those who are so damaged by the world that they destroy the innocent because that’s the only way they feel powerful?

The last one is the hardest but it’s likely to bring the most lasting change. I do not believe animal abuse is an action taken on it’s own. The steps towards becoming an abuser start long before sn action is ever taken.  That person has been in pain and alone for a very long time before they start abusing animals. And better we help those children who are in that much pain before they start injuring animals.

In other words, yes, we can complain about those images and we won’t stop. Yes, the abuse needs to stop but so does the imagery of it.

Compassion Fatigue and Stopping the Violence

A photo seen here that attributes a quote to Johnny Depp saying, “If you don’t like seeing pictures of violence towards animals, you need to stop the violence, not the pictures,” has been going around Facebook. I cannot tell you how much that angers me.

The people complaining about the pictures are not the people perpetuating the violence. They are often the people working with the abused animals or finding homes for them after the animal has had it’s medical care. They may be helping an owner get funds to pay for the heroic care needed for their pet’s life to be saved. They may have given money to stop animal abuse already.

To suggest that shelter workers who see so much abuse or veterinary workers who have to try and save the lives damaged by the abuse should not complain about the photos until the violence is stopped lacks any element of compassion or understanding about the people who are complaining. Sharing horrible images is easy. Working in the trenches is much harder. Not everyone can do it. Not everyone has money to donate to help. And everyone wants to help. However,  sharing this type of image is not helpful. In fact, it can make things worse.

Imagine working all day with creatures that have been neglected and harmed and have nothing. And then you go to rest up and there are photos all over your Facebook wall of animals that have been hurt as bad or worse than the ones you saw during the day. What sort of rest is that?

And yes, we all need rest. No one can do it all and no one can do it every hour of every day. Stop the pictures. The people least offended by them are the ones perpetuating the violence. The rest of us can visualize the problem very well on our own, thank you.

Anticipating Grief

I recently read this post over at Grief Healing. It is about that process so many of us go through as we anticipate the death of a beloved pet.

A wonderful quote is linked from an article where a physician talks about our perceptions of death.  “The family may ask me to use my physician superpowers to push the patient’s tired body further down the road, with little thought as to whether the additional suffering to get there will be worth it. For many Americans, modern medical advances have made death seem more like an option than an obligation. We want our loved ones to live as long as possible, but our culture has come to view death as a medical failure rather than life’s natural conclusion.”

This can be even more true with our pets. They don’t have any say in our decisions, not really. We have to trust our instincts and our gut that we are doing the right thing. They don’t have voices to raise and say, “No. I don’t want to live like that. Just let me go.” They can’t set living wills or discuss what they want before hand. We have to trust that those little voices that whisper to us are correct. We also have to trust that our pets will be honest with us about what they want and not what they think we want to hear. We put a lot of stress on ourselves don’t we?

The article in grief healing addresses the fact that any pet that we are suffering through the loss of was beloved and a very lucky pet. Death is not a medical failure but a natural part of life.


Compassion Fatigue and the Holidays

So it’s the holidays and you’ve been giving and giving and giving. Now all the charities seem to be out there asking for more and more and more. After all, people are supposed to be in the mood to give right?

Of course everyone is busier. So are you. So are the people you often rely on for support. Now fewer have time to do their shifts. Perhaps you are taking on more. Maybe not because maybe other people in your life are asking for more.

At any rate, it seems like there is just as much if not more work to be done and fewer people and fewer dollars to do it. Those who aren’t giving money to the other charities have gifts to buy and extra food and of course there might be some extra travel expenses.

So there you are, tired, worn out and you feel as if you have to give even more. Stop. It’s not up to just you. It’s hard to set boundaries at any time and seems even harder this time of year, but it’s all the more important to do so. You are part of a bigger web of animal lovers and rescuers. You play your role and do your part. And when you can’t take on the work of four other people, remind yourself that perhaps others need to step up. Yes, they are busy too. But if the idea of having to take on even more makes you feel like you want to curl up and cry, then you need to pause and take care of yourself.

Do something special for yourself, just for you, something that is fun. Let yourself receive something this season rather than just giving. Oddly, for many givers, of which most rescuers are, receiving is harder than giving. Let yourself feel the discomfort of really receiving a gift from someone and notice what that does. That’s a reminder you don’t let yourself receive often enough. However, in order to give you have to receive. You can’t give on empty. Take a breath. Receive the energy of that breath and then breath out, your gift back to the world.

The holidays are often exhausting. Remember to pause and take care of yourself. Remember you can’t give to everyone who asks. Set your priorities and take on those tasks that feed your soul the most.

Energetics of Grief

A few months ago, I talked  a little about the emotions from an energetic perspective. This week, I’d like to address one of the more difficult emotions and that’s that of grief.

Have you ever noticed that grief is, in many ways, the most frightening emotion to give ourselves over to? It often feels as if tears and sorrow will never leave. I find it interesting that the organ pairing that governs grief also governs letting go.

Consider letting go in the bigger picture. Each year in the world, plants bloom or bear fruit. That fruit is picked or dropped so that the plant can procreate. Whether it is fruit the carries the seeds to be dropped elsewhere or in nuts that will be buried by squirrels, the plant bears these fruits and then lets go of them.

Farmers take the good wheat from the field, leaving behind that which is less desirable. They make choices as to which to hold onto and which to leave behind.

The organ pairing that govern grief also govern our ability to make these choices, to find the jewels that need to be saved and that which needs to be let go. Also, understand that letting go does not have to happen overnight. Spring does not follow late summer and fall. Spring follows winter, that time when everything hibernates and comes to a stop and rests.

We think we can avoid grief by doing. In fact, doing and moving distracts us from our grief rather than letting us process it. It is only in resting and in stillness that we mentally find those things we want to hold to and those that we want to let go.

In addition to letting go, the organs that relate to grief also govern our immune system and in particular when we are grieving or sorrowing we need to watch out for illness. This is especially true for upper respiratory illnesses like colds and pneumonia. It is important to maintain healthy activities.

A difficulty for those who work in animal shelters is that it seems like they are always having to let go. Sometimes the letting go is joyous as the pets are going to a good home. Other times it is not so joyous. Even in no kill shelters, a cat or dog may be so elderly and sickly that euthanasia is the most humane thing that can be done for them. Knowing there are pets that are suffering and the shelter has to turn away some animals and in so doing, risk their lives at a kill shelter can be hard as well. By doing nothing, by not having the resources to do more it can feel like one has failed. Those failures need to be grieved as well.

The lesson of the harvest is that we can’t take everything with us. We have to let the seeds go and fall where they may. We must take only that which we can hold. We have only so much space and so much time. The penalties for that pet we couldn’t help may be severe but understanding limitations is important. We may rage and grieve for the one we couldn’t help but ultimately we must let that life go, knowing we have done what we could and not blame ourselves for not finding a better answer. The blame can make our bodies hang onto grief long after it may need to be let go of.

When we are full and have done all we can, remember that the cherry tree doesn’t bloom in the winter. It rests. Finding the cycle in smaller areas, such as having a life where we rest and create in other places can be a help when the time at the shelter seems all about “harvest” and difficult choices. It is balance.

It is also understanding that in the large picture, maybe things are changing, even if it doesn’t seem that way today or for that pet we wanted to save and couldn’t. And within that larger picture are all the pets we did save, even if we know there is still more work to be done.

Understanding the cycle also doesn’t mean not grieving. It means making space for the grieve to move through and be processed. Quiet time helps. Talking can help. Different things work for different people. Grief will have the best chance of moving through if you maintain your health, so eating regularly and well helps. And don’t forget the wonders of a hot bath.

Compassion Fatigue Pick-Me-Ups. has some 10 minute pick-me-ups that can help with compassion fatigue.

And note to add to our readers. We’re sorry about the links not always working. For some reason when saving and re-editing posts the links have been disappearing and we’re not sure why.

Change and Moving through Compassion Fatigue

_MG_3434smChange is important in the paradigm of Asian Medicine. Change means movement. Like my first theory professor, who said that if learning theory was building a house, we’d be building a door, a window, a room here or there and walls and things would go together in no logical order. And I think that’s the only way to learn theory. It’s not linear. It’s observational.  However, if there is a foundation principle it’s change.

The Eastern paradigm was one of being an observer of nature and realizing that everything that happened in nature happened to the human body. After all, a human is part of nature so it seems logical. Because they went by what they could relate to with their own senses, they looked at the patterns and at the macroscopic version of what was happening. They experienced the medicine in their own bodies and in the world around them.

In the West, our paradigm is to look at things microscopically. We test things objectively. We look at pictures of our insides, we draw blood and look at that through microscopes, and we take an objective reading of temperatures. Each little piece of our body can be broken down into smaller pieces. The general practitioner refers to a specialist. The body is broken down into organs which are broken down into cells.

One is not better than the other, but it is a different way of looking at the world. All of this is a long way around of saying,  the ancients observed seasons changing. They observed that trees changed, flowers changed and when they themselves were not around long enough to see it, they listened to the elders of villages and knew that even the course of rivers changed and so did the land. Everything changed.

I moved to Washington state shortly after Mt. Saint Helens erupted in 1980. I have only known the mountain with the large crater at the top. I have visited as the centers went up, looking at devastated areas. I could see where burnt trees stood next to trees that were missed by the eruption. I could see empty areas that had been completely destroyed. As time went on I started to see new growth. Trees were replanted in some areas. Some areas were left to regenerate on their own. Now there are beautiful areas to hike. The landscape is not what it once was, but it has come back and is teaming with life.

It’s a wonderful metaphor of how something awful can happen but is turned into something wonderful.

Day by day shelter works see the devastation of animal overpopulation and abuse. It doesn’t seem like it can change. Consider how you feel seeing the posts on Facebook or other blogs when animals are in need. Feel the tightening of your chest, your shoulders or perhaps that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. All of these are ways in which we protect ourselves, guarding ourselves, and trying to stop our feelings.

But we can’t stop our feelings. We can only go with them so that they move with us.

As animal lovers the idea that there are millions of dogs and cats that are still killed every year in the United States is impossible to imagine. Our efforts seem like a drop in the bucket. Perhaps we continue because to stop and give up seems unthinkable but we are constantly overwhelmed because how can one person make a difference in such huge numbers? What can one person do against millions? It’s like standing against a tidal wave.

But things change. They might change slowly. At some point they may begin to change more quickly. It may feel like moving sand with a sieve, but it does change. Twenty years ago the number of animals killed in shelters was much much larger. Yes, it is still to big, but things are changing. Things always do.

If we allow things those horrible feeling to move through our bodies, we allow that things are changing in the world. We might not see those changes.  They might not seem enough but they have changed. Each time we allow change, we make room for even more change.

When it comes to compassion fatigue, allowing the movement of our own emotions, the grief and the anger and anything else that comes up can help keep us healthy. Our energy needs to move. Remember when you were thinking about those sensations in the chest and shoulders or the stomach? All of those were things we do to try and stop a change happening in our body. We can’t actually stop change (or else we’d have found the secret to holding onto youth)but we can try. The more we try and stop something the more pain we cause ourselves.

Energy needs to move. It needs to bring change. Allowing this can ease the mental burden we bear. Yes, change happens, even if it’s very slow. The earth moves at a speed we can’t even feel but it does move. The ancient Chinese thought that the short term meant thinking in terms of hundreds of years rather than thousands. Consider how much faster we are making changes in the animal kingdom. Each year there are fewer animals killed and more homes found.

When you are in pain, let that pain be there. Grieve. When that has run it’s course, when the anger has run it’s course, go back to focusing on what has changed. What has been helped.  Know that it’s a beginning. Things will keep changing, just as the wheel keeps turning.

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.

Long But So Worth It

IMG_0881e1Notes from a Dog Walker has a great article on compassion fatigue from a very personal place, as a shelter worker.

Upon leaving the shelter, after being completely burned out, Jessica says, “I felt guilty that I was leaving my fellow co-workers behind in the trenches to do the work I couldn’t do anymore. I felt sick at the thought of abandoning the dogs that were still waiting for homes. But I knew I had to go.”

She said a year later she was still feeling some of the emotions.

She’s lucky. Or maybe smart. As a veterinary receptionist I find that I still can’t deal with certain things. James Herriot? No way. I’ll burst into tears looking at the cover. And all those great books everyone is writing, you know Homer the Blind Cat? Dewey? Can’t do it. I know they have happy endings but I can’t even deal with the possibilities because I’ve seen too many not happy endings. I’m still mad at a friend who recommended a great book on pet oncology because it was really uplifting and I would love it. Although I said no she kept pressing it on me. I finally gave in. Tears started on page one and I sobbed for days after in the privacy of my own home. I’d say for no reason but the real reason was all the stuff that this book brought up. My vet may not have been an oncologist but we saw many pets like the ones he wrote about. We saw the love and the connection and the caring and the hopes and fears on the faces of our clients. And trust me, when you stand a little outside, a little objective, there is nothing worse than an owner who isn’t ready to see what is actually going on.

Jessica also points out a very important difference in compassion fatigue in other care giving situations and those of shelter workers, “Side note: there is one critical difference between all the other helping professions and shelter workers. We’re the only ones that sometimes have to kill those we are assigned to care for. “

And that’s got to make it even harder. I think only hospice care nurses come close to that issue and even they aren’t actually assisting the passing. At least they have the comfort of knowing that they were caring for someone who was actively involved in the process of dying and not having to destroy an unwanted pet.

And I’m not even sure how to address *that*, so for the moment we’ll move on. Jessica doesn’t either. It’s a big one, we know. I think we all know that deep down.

But let’s move on to another important point, the idea that whole organizations can have compassion fatigue and that makes it harder to work there. “If we want shelter workers to do their best work, organizations and their management have to be aware of these issues and work to help staff and volunteers to identify healthy coping strategies and encourage them to build resiliency. We have to make this non-negotiable and as important as any other part of their training, since neglecting self-care has negative consequences for our work. It has to be a part of the culture of our profession: prioritizing self-care, so we can care for others.”

Consider going over to Jessica’s blog and reading the full post. It’s definitely worth a look.


What are Your Triggers?

cstock7smReading about compassion fatigue, there’s not much about animal rescue workers. That’s why I was so excited that someone would offer a course.  Reading about it, I was extrapolating the various types of compassion fatigue that are studied to apply to shelter workers. I think the fatigue that rescue workers feel most closely parallels that of social workers working with abused children.

There are a number of reasons for this. Clearly, for many animal lovers, pets are surrogate children. They may not yet have children, they may not be able to have their own children or their children may have left home.

Social workers who were most prone to compassion fatigue had some sort of early childhood trauma that could be triggered and re-traumatized by the events of their work. Animal rescue workers are working with abandoned animals. As babies, humans cannot be abandoned and survive. They need others for every need they have, to get food, to stay clean, to remain hydrated, to stay safe. There is a primal part of our brain that is hardwired to fear abandonment.  Each time we see an abandoned animal, those primal fears are re-triggered within us. What if we were helpless and lost without a home?

In this economy the plight of homeless animals can also trigger our own fears of homelessness even as adults. Each time that is triggered, that’s a minor trauma.

Of course, many shelter workers see and hear far worse and those things have their own triggers. Animal abuse or neglect may bring up issues of childhood abuse or neglect. It may also bring up issues around working with abused or neglected children in other professions, especially if the worker is a volunteer.

Acknowledging one’s own triggers can begin the process of healing. The Yogic healers often talk about recognition without judgement or trying to change. It means that the beginning of change is noticing and letting whatever is noticed be.

The next step is finding support. Volunteers who have worked together or alongside each other can be an invaluable way to process what  has happened each shift. Talking and support is a huge key to whether or not someone suffers enduring compassion fatigue or moves on to continue working.

Finally, the number of hours worked made a huge difference. People who live and breathe the shelter life are at most risk. Finding time outside the shelters, limiting yourself to a certain number of hours (and not more than 40, which is a full-time job) can be very important. For those who work at shelters and  feel a need to devote more hours, is it possible to mindfully be aware of which tasks impact you emotionally the most and limit those tasks each day? Even just creating a variety of tasks each week can be helpful in keeping one from concentrating on part of the work.

For those who think they only volunteer a little, remember foster care is a 24/7 job. Taking in a lot of fosters plus working at a shelter all year can all add up in terms of triggering compassion fatigue.

No one person can do it all. Sadly this is also an aspect that those who suffer from compassion fatigue are all too aware. The job is just too big. What you can do seems so important. However, it is also important to take good self-care. What you are doing is far too important not to.


  • Know your triggers.
  • Find Support
  • Limit your tasks or at least create a balance of things that you like versus harder tasks.

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