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What is Compassion Fatigue?
 Teresa Wagner

There are many terms to describe the pressures we feel from life in general and from our work. Ultimately, words and labels don't matter. In themselves they certainly don't fix anything. However, sometimes the use of language to describe the specificity of what we feel and experience can help us understand and even uncover what we're going through much more clearly. This clarity, in turn, can help us take the most appropriate action to heal. In that light, here are some terms which may help you discriminate your experiences in animal care:

    Stress is when we know we have pressures but we're handling it

    Stress is the non-specific response of the body to any demand placed upon it (Selye)

    Burnout is when we doubt our ability to keep coping constructively

    Burnout is the development of a negative self-concept and negative attitude towards work, people involved in the work, life itself, and a severely hampered ability to cope with the work environment. (Pines and Aronson 1988)

PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) differs from other stress in that it is a normal reaction to is to abnormal events.

Our reaction to experiencing an event outside the range of usual experience that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone. (APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV 1994)

STSD (secondary traumatic stress disorder) The stress resulting from working with trauma victims

Compassion Fatigue is an accepted alternate term for secondary traumatic stress disorder.

Compassion Fatigue is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people (or animals). (Figley 1993)

I believe that the majority of front line workers in animal welfare organizations suffer from traumatic stress and compassion fatigue. Why? Because the work is the most emotionally complex and morally challenging of any trauma worker role in our society. Remember, compassion fatigue is different from burnout in that the cause of compassion fatigue is always related to caring about, taking care of, or exposure to trauma victims, while burnout can result from any type of stress. For more than ten years I worked for a Fortune 500 corporation and facilitated stress management seminars for executives. They were not suffering from compassion fatigue, but from stress and burnout. Their stress was not caused from caring about the suffering others. Yours is. Compassion fatigue is unique to certain roles and situations.

Post traumatic stress is experienced by the direct victims of trauma (in shelter and rescue situations, the animals). Secondary traumatic stress (compassion fatigue) is experienced by those who help and are exposed to these victims of trauma. As many of us know, being around the pain and suffering of others can be "emotionally contagious". It's difficult to see and care deeply about the suffering of others without feeling some pain ourselves.

The symptoms of PTSD and compassion fatigue are the same and can include: recurrent nightmares, recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the trauma, flashback episodes, intense psychological distress at exposure to cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event, restricted range of feelings (i.e. blocking feelings), difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, hyper vigilance and exaggerated startle response.

The factors impacting the severity of these traumatic stress symptoms include: the duration of the experience/exposure, potential for recurrence, degree of exposure to death, dying and destruction, degree of moral conflict inherent in the situation, and the extent to which the role is direct or indirect. Every one of these factors exists in the shelter/animal control/rescue workers job:

    Caring for traumatized animals is a daily event, not occasional. It is on going, not episodic.

    Exposure to death is frequent at many shelters

    Degree of moral conflict is extremely high for humans who deeply love animals and are in a role of choosing who must live and who must die, and are in the role of personally performing euthanasia

    Their role is seeing these animal victims of trauma is direct and hands on, along with direct and on-going exposure to the very perpetrators of animal abandonment, neglect or abuse

It is not surprising that shelter workers' scores on a Compassion Fatigue Self Test (Charles Figley 1995) are extraordinarily high. Figley's test scores are clustered in categories of extremely low risk, low risk, moderate risk, high risk and extremely high risk. In over 350 of these tests administered in my Compassion Fatigue workshops for shelter staff, every single shelter workers' score was in the extremely high risk range. Clearly, the shelter/animal control/rescue workers of our communities pay a very high emotional price for the care they give our homeless, abandoned, neglected and abused animals. To take a compassion fatigue test yourself on-line, go to Graciously, authors Charles Figley and B. Hudnall Stamm have made it possible for us to do this at no cost. The test was not created for animal care workers, but for workers who help humans. To make the items relevant to you, just replace the words person or people with animal where appropriate. When looking at your test results, please keep the following in mind:

    Compassion Fatigue is a term, not a disease! It is simply a label to help us identify where we may benefit from healthy changes in our life. Having a high score does not mean "you are in trouble." Having a high score may mean that there are a number of issues related to your stress that warrant your attention. There is no need for alarm, only awareness.

    Some people report that their scores simply confirm what they already know. Others are surprised. Many people did not previously know that certain symptoms they experience were related to the stress of their work. If this is the case for you, then the test was worth taking! The "surprises" can serve as alerts to what needs your attention.

    If you feel uncomfortable or anxious about your scores, it may be because the items and scores force you to look at what is causing you pain and how you react to it "in the light of day." In the stress and business of this work, there's not a lot of time to sit around and reflect on our feelings. A common and understandable coping mechanism in this field is to stuff the overwhelming emotions so we can keep going. So, if the test upsets you, it may be because it's the first time in a long time you've looked at how you work effects you emotionally. Taking a test like this can be like trying on a bathing suit in one of those brightly lit dressing rooms in stores ("My God are those really my thighs!"). Or, it can be like looking at a photograph of yourself realizing how happy (or not happy) you were at the time it was taken. Taking a close look at ourselves is not always easy. If as a result of the test, you see things you don't like, let it serve as a gentle motivation to change. Your work is incredibly difficult. Most people in your line of work do have high scores. It does not mean anything is wrong, it is merely an assessment of what is.

    The scores don't matter. What matters are the items on the test which concern you. When you're done with all the scoring, go back through the items and look for the compassion fatigue items (the circled ones) which you rated a 4 or 5. These are issues which create stress for you. Use this information as a baseline, not to judge yourself, or to feel scared about, but just as information. Just as you when we get on the scale and see ten pounds more than we'd like, we can either use those numbers to feel badly, or use as information to inspire us to change. Look at the items which concern you the most.

It's not the load that breaks us down. It's the way we carry it.

It's a given that compassion fatigue is common among animal welfare workers. Read further to explore and review ways you can prevent it, cope with it, and heal it.

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