Vegan advocates – Are you suffering from compassion fatigue?November 21, 2018
Jennifer Blough is a professional counsellor, certified compassion fatigue therapist, and certified pet loss grief specialist. She owns a private practice in southeast Michigan called Deepwater Counselling and is the author of a book about coping with compassion fatigue.
Tell us about yourself…
I have been involved in animal welfare/rights in some capacity since I was a child. I became vegetarian at a very young age and attended my first protest with my grandma (also a vegetarian) when I was about 12. My grandma was very involved in the animal rights movement and I followed in her footsteps, including eventually going vegan.
I also have a professional background in animal welfare, including work at shelters and as an animal control officer. I ended up becoming a therapist after a personal tragedy.
My special-needs parrot and feathered soul mate, Albert, died suddenly in 2011, which turned my world upside down. As I worked through my grief, I realised that resources for people struggling with companion animal loss were scarce, and so I wanted to become that resource.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is the emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that occurs when caring for animals or people who are suffering or have been traumatised.
It’s not a mental disorder nor an illness; it’s simply a normal consequence of caring so much that it hurts. All caregivers and helping professionals – from nurses to police officers to veterinarians – are vulnerable to compassion fatigue.
What inspired you to want to specialise in this particular area?
It wasn’t until I went back to grad school to study psychology that I learned about compassion fatigue. It was emphasised in my program because therapists can easily develop it when working with traumatised clients. As I learned more about it, I thought, ‘so this is what I’ve been struggling with all these years… it actually has a name!’
In addition to pet loss grief, I wanted to specialise in compassion fatigue, particularly among animal welfare professionals and animal rights activists because these populations are underserved, misunderstood, and so saturated with pain and grief.
Their pain and grief is often not recognised or accepted by mainstream society. By that I mean there are a lot of misconceptions out there that this community is either a bunch of “animal nuts who care more about animals than people” or they go to work and play with puppies and kittens all day. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Whether you are exposed to videos of factory farming or you work with animals that have been abused, our community faces an extraordinary amount of trauma and grief.
Why is compassion fatigue a problem?
Compassion fatigue is a huge problem within the animal welfare and rights community. It affects those of us who care the most, and so we run the risk of those people burning out and leaving the field altogether.
Untreated compassion fatigue can lead to serious problems such as clinical depression, substance abuse, and even suicide. Veterinarians and animal control officers have alarmingly high rates of suicide.
Compassion fatigue not only takes a toll on us personally, but also affects our relationships with others and spills over into our work.
Employers should take compassion fatigue very seriously as it affects staff and volunteer morale, work productivity, and retention.
What are some of the warning signs that you’re suffering from it?
Compassion fatigue can look different for everyone. For me personally, sometimes it sits quietly simmering on the back burner and other times it boils over. It’s really important to know your own warning signs so that you can take steps to manage it.
Some of those warning signs or symptoms include:
- sleep problems
- appetite disturbance
- nightmares or flashbacks
- low energy
- lack of motivation
- wanting to withdraw from others or isolate yourself
- feeling empty or numb
- work problems
- relationship conflicts
- low self-esteem
- poor concentration
- bodily complaints such as tight muscles or headaches
- developing a bad attitude or negative worldview
- unhealthy coping skills such as alcohol abuse
- suicidal thoughts
In your experience, how common is it for those working with animals and humans to suffer from it?
Not only is compassion fatigue common, but it’s also normal.
You can’t be exposed to that much suffering and not be affected. It’s not like you either have compassion fatigue or you don’t – it’s more like to what degree do you have it.
If left untreated, it can become severe enough to the point of burnout. If well managed, you can remain energised and experience more compassion satisfaction than fatigue.
Your new book – To Save a Starfish: A Compassion Fatigue Workbook for the Animal Welfare Warrior – offers a holistic approach to dealing with compassion fatigue. Why is this important?
I have a very holistic approach to treating my clients, and I wanted this book to reflect that. We hold trauma, grief, and stress in our bodies – not just our brains.
I believe very strongly in the mind-body connection.
And so I wanted to offer a variety of practical stress management techniques and self-care skills that people could incorporate into their daily lives. I don’t believe that healing comes in a one-size-fits-all approach, and so my hope is that readers will try the recommendations and discover what works best for them.
What will readers gain from the book?
The very first thing that I hope readers will gain from the book is validation. Assurance that you are not alone, that what you are going through has a name and is normal.
You’re not weak; you’re not flawed.
There is no compassion fatigue without compassion, so chances are you probably care a great deal. But that comes with a price, and so we have to learn to manage the symptoms that can arise from caring so much. We have to take care of ourselves in order to take care of others.
This book offers helpful tools to manage the many symptoms of compassion fatigue, including relaxation techniques, nutrition advice, self-care skills, sleep hygiene, challenging unhelpful thinking styles, using physical activity and creativity to combat compassion fatigue, and much more. Because it’s written in a workbook format, readers have the opportunity to reflect on their own struggles and experiences.
For more information, visit Jennifer’s website at www.deepwatermichigan.com to learn more and to join her email list for regular advice on compassion fatigue, as well as upcoming events and announcements. Be sure to also look for The Compassion Fatigue Podcast.
As a writer, Emma’s work has been featured in other popular well-being and spiritual websites such as Elephant Journal, IVORY magazine, and she’s part of the Huffington Post’s team of regular bloggers. Her writing was also included in the Tiny Buddha book 365 Love Challenges from Tiny Buddha,released in 2015 by HarperCollins.
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