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Compassion Fatigue

June 5th, 2014 by Deborah Brister

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Do you know someone (perhaps yourself) who has suddenly awakened to the reality of animal exploitation and abuse in the meat, dairy, clothing, cosmetics, or entertainment industry? It is wonderful to observe these people as their internal light bulbs turn on; they vigorously work on the front lines of animal rescue, attend animal rights events, and amp up their advocating presence on social media. Animal rights is their main topic of conversation and their passion is undeniably admirable.

But after awhile, a strange thing happens. Many of those same advocates suddenly become despondent, the fire subsides, and a degree of complacency covers their energy like a wet blanket. What happened? Burnout? Maybe. Or it could be Compassion Fatigue. Ever heard of it? Also known as Vicarious Traumatization and Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder, Compassion Fatigue is the negative, deleterious effect of working with those affected by trauma and suffering. Compassion Fatigue can have similar symptoms to burnout, however the onset of Compassion Fatigue can occur more rapidly than burnout, and it can resolve itself more readily.

Compassion Fatigue strikes particularly hard at those already predisposed to a caring-type personality. You know the type, those who place others before themselves. It strikes particularly hard at those who are empathic. Unfortunately, animal advocates are often vulnerable to Compassion Fatigue. Like a silent, insidious disease, it can creep into the lives of front line animal advocates who see and experience secondary trauma such as observing the trauma of animals subjected to cruelty or inhumane slaughter.

IDA_COSA_DebOver time (and sometimes not much time at all), animal advocates can begin to become cynical and lose their sense of humor, isolate themselves from others, bottle up emotions, lose self-worth, resort to substance abuse to numb feelings, indulge in overspending, overeating, gambling and sexual addictions, experience recurring nightmares, express indifferent attitudes, take less interest in personal hygiene and overall appearance, feel a loss of hope and meaning, have difficulty in concentrating, appear apathetic, express anger towards perpetrators, become sad and unable to seek pleasure in activities, and experience physical symptoms of chronic physical ailments If these symptoms sound familiar to you, pay attention.

Compassion Fatigue is well known in other trauma-related occupations such as health care, military service, first-responders for emergencies, and journalists that cover disasters. It is commonly seen in those involved in animal rights. Animal advocates must be aware of the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue because it can alter lives (including the lives of loved ones), unless there is a self-care plan in place.

Self-care includes assessing what is on your plate in terms of workload (work, family, volunteering, commitments, etc.). Notice what really takes up your time and energy. Look at how much time each day you take for yourself—a real break (in the form of meditation, yoga, or just relaxing). Self-care includes delegating work that others could do for you and saying no to tasks when you don’t have the time or energy. Assess the amount of time you spend looking at trauma-related images and stories on social media, often overlooked as contributors to Compassion Fatigue. Developing a “trauma filter” (Mathieu, 2007) can help. Exercise, healthy eating, and attending support groups are other helpful resources. Front-line support specifically for animal advocates can be found through IDA’s partner, the International Vegan Collaborative. For more information on mindfulness and self-care, please read Dr. Suzanne McAllister’s blog.

If those advocating for animal rights unknowingly fall victim to, and do not address Compassion Fatigue, the entire movement suffers at the loss of another voice for the animals. The animal rights movement has much work to do and not much time to do it. It is critical that we not lose one more staffer, one more volunteer. Non-profit organizations are frequently stretched to the limits financially, and with a workload that seems insurmountable at times. Even with these constraints, however, the non-profit must recognize that it is in the organization’s best interest to take care of its employees and volunteers with respect to Compassion Fatigue. Ultimately, there are three things we must do at the individual, peer, and organizational level. We must first recognize Compassion Fatigue and understand our own and each other’s vulnerability. Second, we must encourage and develop a self-care program for our employees, volunteers, our peers, and ourselves. And finally, we must carry on with the noblest of tasks—that of advocating for those who cannot defend and speak for themselves.

Deborah Brister has been active in animal rights for nearly 40 years. She is Executive Director of the International Vegan Collaborative, an organization that has a community of Front Line Support for animal activists. Deborah can be reached at deb.brister@gmail.com.

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