The Difference Between Coping and Healing:
Case Studies and Creating an Action Plan for Yourself

by Teresa Wagner

What's the Difference Between Coping and Healing?

Coping is about resiliency
--keeping up our ability to manage stress day to day. It's about the necessary need for finding ways to escape the pressures of stress, and about needed short term rejuvenation.

Healing is about preventing and alleviating the root causes of our stress for long term change. It's about figuring out what causes it and committing to either trying to change it, accept it, or leaving it. Healing is about our deepest levels of learning, growth and awareness.

Coping and Healing are both needed to help with compassion fatigue. Coping is what we do when we take a much needed coffee break after a particularly difficult exchange with a boss, or member of the public. Healing is what we do when we take the time to stop to really think about "why do I react that way with this person?" "How can I think about this situation differently, how can I frame it, how can I perhaps respond differently so it doesn't always rile me up so horribly?" "How can I change it for the long run?" Healing is when we want to truly change the situation or our reaction to it, not merely escape the pain and tension it brings.

And, escape from tension is also necessary! Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, calls it a need for having a "bliss station." We do need places to go and things to do to bring us relief from the stress and pain of this work. Imagine the cycle of stress represented as a circle. Along this circle there are events or situations which trigger our negative reactions (pain, heartache, frustration, anger, etc.). Coping is what we do to live through those events or periods of time. Healing is what we do to literally remove those events from our lives, or when we shift our thoughts and feelings about the issues so deeply that when the events occur, they no longer trigger such unpleasant reactions. In our own stress cycles of life, if all we do is cope, we're really just taking breaths in between bouts of stressful events. In the highly stressful environment of animal welfare work, coping without deeper healing will burn us out. Coping and healing are very important.

Take a look at the following list of differences and examples of coping and healing. Where do you see yourself? What strategies might you want to add to your own repertoire of coping and healing skills? Beyond these lists, there are three case studies of people working in animal welfare: one in a shelter, one as a humane officer, and one as a grass roots rescue volunteer. Read their stories, assess how you see their stress and how they are coping and healing. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you may want to fill out the form called Action Plan for Your Stress. This is a place for you to pull together all you may have learned or thought about in reading these pages. You deserve a good life. If there are things that might make it better, go for it!

Builds resiliency to buffer the cycles of stress
Breaks the cycle of stress
Band-aides Solves problems
Maintains status quo Creates state of wholeness
What we do to get by, survive stressful issues What we do to resolve, come to terms with stressful issues (at least our reactions to them)
Helps reduce tension Replaces tension with acceptance and serenity
Express feelings simply to vent Express feelings with intent to understand them, process them, let them go & move on
Find ways to escape overwhelming emotions so can continue life without disruption
(perhaps sweeping problems under rug)
Aware of emotions and work to resolve them
(face problems squarely)
Temporarymeasures Long lastingmeasures
Alleviates symptoms Alleviates root causes
Helps to escape stress Requires us to fully face issues surrounding stress
Can be light and fun Can be intense
Can be quick, immediate Takes more time & consideration


Examples of Coping and Healing

Sharing feelings in a support group.
Vent feelings just to get them out.
Sharing feelings in a support group
with intent to resolve them
Sharing feelings and stories with co-workers, friends or family Sharing feelings and stories with co-workers, friends or family with intent to understand them
Taking time to relax--either favorite leisure activities or relaxation exercises Relaxation or meditation to help come to terms with the stress and heal any pain
Pray--use spiritual beliefs and practices for support to practices for support to get by Pray--use spiritual beliefs and practices for support to get by and to truly learn and be guided
Get aways! A few hours or long vacation to simply escape tension and responsibility Use some time of the getaway for reflection, to come back to center. . .
Listen to music for pure enjoyment Choose music to intentionally match your mood to legitimize your feelings and allow full emotional expression
Enjoy beautiful art Express your feelings through drawing, painting or clay. Look for and reflect on messages from your heart
Write in a journal Reflect on what you write in your journal, see the patterns, learn and grow from it
Spend time in nature Allow the magic of nature to soothe and heal you
Spend time with human and animal loved ones Spend quality time with them, building reciprocity of love, caring and support
Moving from department to department, from job to job when can't get along with someone. Blaming almost all problems on others. When having problems with boss or others, really think seriously about why, what do I contribute to problem, what does other contribute? Work does other contribute? Work to make relationship constructive. When that doesn't work, then initiate transfers to new jobs, learn from what didn't work.


Case Studies: Tale of Three Animal Care Workers

(the stories are fictitious but were based on composite people and events)

Tina... a customer care technician who is devoted to helping animals.

Tina has loved animals all her life and is very happy to have a job helping them. She used to work in a vet office and is a registered vet tech but wanted to be with more helpless, homeless animals so she got a job in a shelter.

The work is starting to get to her though. First she thought it was the euthanasia-- which she did for four years almost everyday. So when she asked for and got a transfer to customer care she thought things would be better. But she still has the nightmares. Especially after a day of people coming in with hideous reasons to give up their animals. She always feels like she wants to strangle them. She thought her anger toward the people who abandon animals would get better when she stopped doing euthanasia and got to do adoptions. But it's just as bad. She always tells her friends that you don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure out that there are many, many more people dumping their animals at the shelter than there are people coming in to adopt and take home animals. . and that too many animals are euthanized because people just don't care enough to keep them. When she thinks about these numbers she gets alternately depressed or mad.

And her boyfriend! He's a great guy overall but he does NOT understand how she feels. Whenever she starts to talk about it he just doesn't want to hear it. He just says "get another job." This really pisses her off and they fight about it a lot. In fact, in the support group at the shelter which she has attended for two years, she complains about his lack of understanding every week. She also talks to this group about how she could never, ever forgive her ex-husband. Some years ago, her husband abandoned her and their children for another woman and moved out of state. Their children were one and three when this happened and he has never sent a dime of child support. They are now teenagers and Tina has worked very, very hard all these years to raise them by herself.

Her boyfriend and her kids do have some good times. Her favorite "escape" is their camping trips. When she is in nature, seeing wildlife and unspoiled land, away from it all, she feels rejuvenated for weeks afterward. And now that the kids are older, she plays on a softball team each year which really helps her forget the pain of work.

One of the other things that bugs her at work is management. Her supervisor is always telling her about some stupid new rule like being extra nice to big donors when they come in or bending the adoption rules for some board member. "Damn!," Tina thinks. "So what if they're rich people who can write big checks easier than I can pay my rent? They've never stepped one foot inside our euthanasia room and if they ever worked in the kennels for an hour they'd probably faint from the noise and smell or from chipping their expensive manicure job. They don't have a clue what really happens around here." Tina's supervisor understands how she feels, and even shares some of the same opinions, but has tried to get Tina to understand how important donors are to continuing their work for the animals. She has even asked Tina on more than occasion to participant in an on-going committee for long range planning made up of management, non management employees and board members. Tina's response is always the same. "Tell them to do it themselves. I've got real work to do."

Tina sees the world--especially how animals and most employees are treated, as a very unfair, harsh place. She figures if she can get in a few camping trips a year, keep playing softball, and stay in the support group at work she'll stay sane.

Toby: a humane officer who takes great pride in his work

When Toby sees animals who've been treated cruelly he relates to their pain and helplessness very deeply. He knows first hand what cruelty is about because for several years as a little boy he was physically abused by his father. He feels both compelled to help them and very fulfilled when he can. For many years, he had revenge fantasies about what he'd like to see happen to the people who hurt animals. And these were not passing comments to co-workers to let off a little steam. He harbored these fantasies and felt obsessed with hatred toward not only anyone who abused animals but everyone who did not spay and neuter and everyone who "dumped" their animals at the shelter. Even when he walked his dog, which was about his favorite thing in the world to do, he couldn't get rid of the tension he felt.

After awhile the anger and hatred got to him. He developed an ulcer, his wife was having a hard time dealing with his constant rage, and it was just hard to enjoy life. He started realizing that his rage at was not just toward animal abusers--it was at his own father. And that his emotional pain and grief was not just for the animals but for what happened to him as a child. When he first began realizing all of this, he felt pretty vulnerable. "After all," he thought, I'm an adult. I have an important job to do, a living to earn, and I am a husband who loves my wife... I can't afford to sit around like some wimp and cry about my past." But he did read a few books on childhood trauma, and did have some counseling sessions just to clear his thinking. Though he believed it might be a long time before he could forgive his father for what he did to him, he wanted to be sure not to mix up those feelings with his work. He decided to make some changes in his present life.

First of all, even though it still disappointed him that his wife really didn't want to hear about his cases, he came to believe that it's almost impossible for someone outside the field to really understand. When he needs to talk about certain cases now, he talks to people at work. And what really felt good is that he stopped resenting his wife for not wanting to hear it all. They have many other great things going in their relationship and he figured if this is the only need I have to get fulfilled elsewhere, well, no big deal.

The other decision he made was to channel all his hatred and rage toward perpetrators into something constructive. He decided to become an even more skilled and competent investigator to increase chances of prosecution. He began taking classes from AHA, HSUS, and NACA in gathering evidence, crime scene photography and interviewing witnesses. He made it his business to learn what evidence the local DA's would need to prosecute. And he began building positive relationships with them, instead of just resenting how many cases they wouldn't accept. He subscribed to CHAIN and went to more conferences, not only to learn, but to remind himself that he is part of a dedicated community of people who make a difference in the lives of animals everyday. He also reminded himself often that he knew he could not save them all. But that even with that hard fact, he could and would feel good about every action he did take to help. He knew he was part of the solution.

Toby looks forward to many years of fulfilling work.

Note: C.H.A.I.N. Letter, is a quarterly publication of the The Collective Humane Action and Information Network, with the purpose to "establish and maintain a communication network for the purpose of improving the quality of investigation of crimes against animals, and increasing the effectiveness of enforcement of animal protections laws." To subscribe contact: Sam Marsteller 818-951-6387.

Diana: A Devoted Cat Rescue Worker

Diana has worked tirelessly as a volunteer for a local cat rescue group for over six years. She has fostered countless kittens and cats in her home, transported hundreds of cats to adoption days and spay/neuter clinics, and picked up cats from homes where placements did not work out. She loves the work. It has provided some of the most rewarding, exhilarating, meaningful moments of her life. She has five cats of her own whom she lovingly spoils and adores. Nothing touches her heart like seeing those kitty's faces, her own and her fosters', knowing she is doing something to help them. And nothing makes her heart ache more than seeing and hearing how so many are still abandoned, surrendered and homeless. She can't bear the thought of them being euthanized in shelters, so she gives her all to help homeless cats in her community get a home.

Overall, Diana is a giver and a doer for others. It's been easy for her to give so much for the cats, as she's also done for her beloved husband, her younger sisters, and their children. She's always doing something special for someone else. She was the oldest in an alcoholic family. She practically raised her little sisters when they were children and continues to strongly support them as adults. She is the anchor in the family. For Diana, it's always felt much easier to give to and take care of others, and not so comfortable to receive or be taken care of herself. She has filled her life with taking care of others.

Last year, she began to get really tired. At first she believed it to be entirely physical, but doctor's tests showed absolutely nothing wrong. She remained not only tired, but became increasingly short tempered and, much to her dismay, cynical and somewhat depressed. Between her job, the many hours each week volunteering for the cats, taking care of her husband and their house, and spending as much time as possible with her nephews and nieces, she sometimes felt like she was on a treadmill. She began to w onder what it all meant, and if things would ever improve for homeless cats, despite everyone's work. Things that used to fill her heart started feeling like obligations. And on top of this, her husband complained that she missed making dinner too many nights and her sisters criticized the time she gave to "all those cats." First, she was determined to prove them wrong: she made a special dinner for her husband every night, and she visited her sisters' families every weekend, showing she could do it all. But that didn't last; there simply weren't enough hours in the day. Her fatigue got the best of her and she knew it was time to cut down on her activities. Because family means so much to her, she quit her volunteer cat rescue work.

For a time, it seemed like the right choice. Her family was pleased she was back in the roles they were used to her being in, she was more relaxed, and even started going back to church where she attended a prayer circle. It was there that one night she confided to this intimate and safe group that she deeply missed her cat rescue work. She described that for her, it had always felt like God's mission for her, and that though she made a choice to honor her family, she also felt bereft of her other purpose. The minister and other group members suggested that perhaps they could add the plight of all the community's homeless cats to their prayer circle every week. Diana was delighted and grateful. She soon found a quiet peace, believing that even when she couldn't care for the cats herself, others joined her in asking God to watch out for them. And a side benefit (a big one she thought) was that in the discussions about the cats, the other group members learned about animal welfare issues they were previously ignorant about. Many of them made clear commitments to spay and neuter their pets and to get their next ones from a shelter or rescue group. Diana was thrilled. Here she was at a prayer group, helping cats! Another unexpected benefit was that a fellow group member who became a new friend to Diana, after getting to know her life's concerns, suggested that she might enjoy reading some literature and attending some meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, an off shoot of AA designed to help children who grew up in alcoholic families. Diana followed up on this and began to discover a lot of unconscious motives she had for trying to save everyone around her.

She began to ponder how she could express the natural nurturer she knew herself to be, to pour this on her human family, as well as the cats she loved so dearly. She felt little nudges inside that her choices did not have to be extremes of black or white, either/or, but could mean more subtle compromises. She missed the rescue work and decided she would find a way to bring it back into her life in a more balanced way. When she approached her husband about it, suggesting that she get back into the work with some limited time boundaries, he initially rebuffed her. After she made it clear she was going to do it with or without his support, he came around a bit more. He admitted he had been jealous of the attention she gave the cats, and didn't like sharing her. And she admitted that she was learning that she had been "addicted to giving" and that now she was committed to being the natural nurturer she was, but with healthier boundaries. She also explained that she felt she had just as much right to a passionate hobby as he did with his golf. Over time, she carefully negotiated new roles in her marriage: they both worked, they both began to contribute to household chores and cooking, they both spent time on passionate hobbies, and they spent intimate time together. It took a lot of patience on her part, but it was worth it to her to work for what she cherished--her human family and those beloved cats.

Assessing Tina's, Toby's and Diana's Stress

1. What are the SYMPTOMS & PRESSURES they are experiencing?










2. What are they doing to COPE? (i.e. to get by, survive...)










3. What are they doing to HEAL? (i.e. to resolve stress, come to terms...)











Action Plan for YOUR Stress

In regard to your pressures and stress...

1. What are you doing to COPE? (i.e. to get by, survive...)




2. What are you doing to HEAL? (i.e. to resolve stress, come to terms...)




3. What is one additional thing you can begin to do (or do more of!) to strengthen your own prevention and healing of compassion fatigue?





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