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Compassion Fatigue

You love what you do ~ Compassion Satisfaction, but it hurts you ~ Compassion Fatigue.

Compassion fatigue, sometimes known as ‘vicarious trauma’ or ‘secondary traumatic stress’, affects people who are exposed to the traumatic suffering of others. This is a recognised psychological condition and is known to affect animal protection workers who deal with animal suffering and abuse, and shelter workers who have to deal with euthanasia.

Compassion fatigue develops over time—taking weeks, sometimes years to surface. Basically, it is a low level, chronic clouding of caring and concern for others in your life. Over time, your ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through overuse of your skills of compassion. You also might experience an emotional blunting— whereby you react to situations differently than one would normally expect.

From Dealing with Compassion Fatigue
»» Dealing with Compassion Fatigue (WSPA)

Examples of behaviours experienced with Compassion Fatigue (Figley 2005)

  • Hyperarousal & disturbed sleep
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Hypervigilance: hard to relax
  • Impulse to rescue any animal in need
  • Emotional Exhaustion & Diminished empathy
  • Avoidance: “not wanting to go there again” and the “desire to avoid thoughts, feelings, conversations associated with care and protection of the animals or past experiences
  • Re-experiencing intrusive thoughts or dreams and emotional/physical distress in response to care and protection of the animals or past experiences.
  • Sadness, apathy
  • Low personal accomplishment
  • Diminished self care
  • Isolation

Charles Figley, PhD, professor of disaster mental health at Tulane University’s School of Social Wokr suggests the following coping strategies:

1. Accept that you’ve been traumatized.
“There is a systematic, organizational environment that breeds compassion fatigue,” Figley says. “Accept that you’ve been traumatized. If you can, take a two-week vacation and devote it to becoming un-traumatized.”

2. Be a survivor, not a victim.
“Someone who is a victim lives in the past. They say, ‘Don’t you know what’s happened to me?’ Survivors believe what they’re experiencing now is nothing compared to what they’ve already survived,” Figley says. “They don’t wonder when things will go back to being normal. They accept that this is the new normal.”

3. Make peace with the past.
Figley recommends answering these questions to put the past in its place:

  • a. What happened to me? (Was there a bad outcome? Were there a series of bad outcomes? Were there too many euthanasias?)
  • b. Why did it happen to me? (Was it fate? Did I study hard enough? Did I make a mistake?)
  • c. Why did I respond the way I did?
  • d. Why have I acted the way I’ve acted since then?
  • e. What will I do if something like this happens again?

4. Find allies.
“Sometimes people can find their way through this by themselves, and sometimes they can’t,” Figley says. “If not, working with a friend, supportive coworker or family member is fine. This is memory management — you’re learning to live with those traumatic memories.”

5. Prioritize self-care.
“I anticipate people saying, ‘You’re just saying I need sleep; I need to exercise more,’” Figley says. “While I think those steps are important, they’re not enough. What really needs to happen is for people to be able to develop resiliency skills so they can manage their own anxiety. Each person has to figure her or his own way. What works for me may not work for you, and it may change over time. What you need at 20 may not be what you need at 40.

“Self-care is a constant exercise in learning what you need. You have to expose yourself to aspects of your life that aren’t part of what you do, and those other activities must be enriching. It’s about filling up the gas tank. Do something for yourself so you can continue to give back.” Charles Figley

Additional resources

»» Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project
Caring too much can hurt. When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions and substance abuse head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary traumatic stress disorder now labeled: Compassion Fatigue.

This site has numerous resources for caregivers working in many professions.

»» Compassion Fatigue for the Veterinary Professional Webinar
Learn how to diagnosis and treat compassion fatigue to bring your passion back into your job helping animals. You can access a 90 minute webinar for a 24hr period for $39.

»» Compassion Fatigue Self Test
The ProQOL (Professional Quality of Life is the most commonly used measure of the negative and positive affects of helping others who experience suffering and trauma. The ProQOL has sub-scales for compassion satisfaction, burnout and compassion fatigue. has a section on Coping with Stress for Shelter Workers, including Compassion Fatigue and Burnout.



» Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community

»» To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving (Book)
»» To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving (Kindle)