Join me on Tuesday, September 15th at 7pm EST for a free webinar about compassion fatigue!
Here are the details:
Compassion Fatigue: What You Need To Know! is a FREE webinar created especially for people who work or volunteer with animals.
Join me live on Tuesday 9/15/15 at 7pm EST for a 40 minute whirlwind tour of compassion fatigue, followed by a 20 minute Q+A session.
You’ll get to see my smiling mug via a video feed and you’ll be able to hear me through your computer’s speakers. During the Q+A portion of the webinar you can communicate with me by typing into the chat box. All you need to join is your computer and an internet connection.
Can’t make the live webinar? Register anyway and watch the recording when you have time!
As you may already know, compassion fatigue is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people or animals. Almost all of us who work or volunteer with animals experience compassion fatigue at some point.But hardly anyone talks about it. So even though it’s a normal reaction to the stress of our work, we think we’re the only ones who are struggling.
I’ve created this introductory webinar – a very brief tour of a very big subject – to help people who work with animals get access to the basics of compassion fatigue: what it is, what the symptoms look like, and a quick tour of what we can do about it!
And for those of you who already know about compassion fatigue and are ready to meet this occupational hazard head-on with the help of a supportive online community, my 8 week online class, Compassion in Balance starts 9/28.
You can learn more about this totally unique class, designed specifically for people who work or volunteer with animals, here.
Disclaimer: This webinar is NOT a substitution for professional mental health care. If you’re suffering from clinical depression, anxiety, or are having suicidal thoughts, please seek professional help.
This week the Diane Rehm Show aired a terrific program called The Science of Resilience and How It Can Be Learned and it got me thinking about why resiliency, being able to bounce back, matters so much for those of who are caregivers or work in helping professions.
What is Resilience?
According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”
So how resilient are you? Here’s a quiz to help you get an idea of where you’re at these days.
For people who work in helping profession, resiliency is essential. It’s what allows us to engage with people and animals who are suffering each day and cope with the challenges of doing this complex work that is so often filled with adversity.
People who are resilient cope with negative experiences differently than those of us who are less resilient. According to Barbara Fredrickson PhD, resilient people are more hopeful, engaged, and connected to others, which helps them to avoid a major depression (or recover from it) after experiencing something negative.
And they also approach uncertainty, something we face a lot of in life and especially at work, differently as well. Less resilient people tend to brace themselves for a negative outcome and they are slow to recognize when things turn out not to be bad. In other words, they were expecting the outcome to be negative and they have a hard time noticing that things turned out ok.
On the other hand, more resilient people tend to wait to see what happens. They don’t automatically assume a negative outcome and therefore are better at discerning the positive and negative in a given situation. And, they don’t project negativity onto a neutral situation.
That’s a mighty handy skill when our work life is filled with situations where we don’t have all the facts and so often, will never know the end of the stories that we glimpse during our day, right?
What Are The Characteristics of Resilient People?
So what do resilient people tend to have in common with one another that allows them to relate to the world in this way?
They tend to have strong social support, are more adaptable, have an internal locus of control, and nurture a spiritual life (sometimes this includes religion, but not always). They actively look for and acknowledge the positive (this shouldn’t be confused with blind optimism, pretending negative things don’t exist like a Pollyanna, or a denial of emotion), and often find meaning in helping others.
While some people are born naturally resilient, many of us are not. But thankfully that’s not the end of the story.
You Can Build Resiliency.
While a small portion of our resiliency may lie in our genes, as Dr. Dennis Charney says in the Diane Rehm program, “…your genes are not destiny here…you can become a more resilient person by challenging yourself and working on things that are out of your comfort zone. So that eventually you develop a psychological toolbox that help you overcome tough times.”
This toolbox is an important concept because it would be misleading to think we simply acquire resilience over time. While the passing of time does allow for us to potentially develop a deeper perspective which can lead to increased resiliency, just as might lead to wisdom, the accumulation of more years on the job or on the planet, isn’t a guarantee that we’ll develop either. Resiliency is a more active and complex process than simply clocking in to life each day.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, captures this idea in one brilliant sentence, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Life is filled with challenges that we work to bounce back from – losses of loved ones and jobs, illness and injuries, violence and heartbreak. And if you work in a helping profession, then the waves of adversity never stop coming. Each day we show up to meet the needs of those who are suffering and in need, we are confronted with loss and grief regularly, and we struggle to do our work with resources that often are far too small to meet the needs in front of us.
But rather than trying to run from or fight the waves in a futile attempt to get them to stop hitting us, we can learn to meet those waves more skillfully. And in doing so, we can ride the waves in such a way that we not only survive, but have the opportunity to thrive among life’s many challenges.
How Do We Increase Resilience?
According the the experts on the Diane Rehm show we can work to reduce our stress levels, face our fears (in small steps), practice mindfulness, build our social bonds, consciously look for the positive, avoid ruminating on the negative, and find purpose in giving to others.
In doing this for ourselves it’s not that we’ll prevent difficult things from ever happening, but it will increase our ability to bend and bounce, instead of crashing and breaking when the waves of adversity blow through our personal and professional life.
Despite our history, past experiences, and present difficulties, in each moment we have the opportunity to make a choice about how we will perceive and respond to our circumstances. When we build resiliency skills, we strengthen our ability to relate to the circumstances and challenges in our life in a more optimal way.
Like actual surfing, increasing our resilience isn’t easy and it takes time. But choosing to become more resilient is possible for all of us, no matter how old we are or what we do for living. So why not learn to ride those waves with skill?
Want to build your resiliency? Here are some resources you might like:
If you’d like to explore resilience further (along with many other topics) with a community of animal care and welfare workers, you may be interested in my 8 week online classes Compassion Fatigue Strategies and Compassion in Balance. Together, we’ll explore strategies to help you be well, while you do good work, including building resilience. The next session begins soon!
Photographer Jesse Freidin has been winning awards for years with his gorgeous black and white portraits that capture the bond between pets and their families. Recently, he turned his attention to a different kind of bond between people and pets: the magic between the volunteers at animal shelters and rescues and the animals in their care.
Finding Shelter is a unique storytelling project that celebrates the reciprocal healing that occurs when volunteers support companion animals during their time of need. It captures the joy and deep satisfaction that all of us who work and volunteer with animals are lucky enough to experience: to give is to receive.
Jessica: What inspired you to focus on the human side of sheltering for this project?
Jesse: I’m always interested in telling stories that aren’t being told, which is why I became fascinated with the volunteer’s perspective. So much attention gets paid to shelter animals and of course that’s crucial to educating our society about the reality of over-breeding, pet abandonment, the dangers of not spaying or neutering, and ensuring that more animals get adopted.
But no one has ever shone a spotlight on the humans who are the backbone of the shelter system, who are the ones keeping these animals alive. Without volunteers, there would be no animals saved. For me, this is where the real story is. It starts with the people.
You’ve written that, “The silent love a shelter dog gives to the human who cares for him is truly healing, making an animal shelter a place for humans and animals to heal together.” How did that element of the work reveal itself to you?
The concept of the human/animal bond being a two-way street is really central to all of my work. In our contemporary society we’ve been led further and further away from the roots of our deep connection with dogs, how we co-evolved and came to rely on each other for survival, and how both sides of that relationship benefit equally from the other’s company.
As a photographer who gets to observe that bond every day, I was very excited to use Finding Shelter as a platform to articulate how dogs and humans heal each other simultaneously. It was always a theory of mine that developed simply through working so closely with people and their canine companions, and after doing a little research on the topic realized that there is genuine merit to the concept. My goal is to help unveil that theory to the general public, and help pet owners foster a deeper relationship with their companions.
I love that your project focuses on the immense joy that caring for sheltered pets brings to volunteers, but we also know that the work takes a huge emotional toll on people. Does compassion fatigue, which is a normal response to caring for animals in need, ever come up in your conversations?
It certainly does, and it’s a fascinating piece of the puzzle. This is why Finding Shelter is a really important story. The work that is currently being done around shelter life shies away from the harsh realities of what it takes to work within the shelter system.
When I’m photographing volunteers for this project I am mostly just chatting with them about their experiences, recording their responses, and giving them permission to be completely honest about how volunteering feels. In that process I am hearing such incredible accounts of love, caring, survival, dedication, joy, heartbreak, sadness and of course the reality of compassion simply running dry.
But for every heartbreaking story of a healthy dog having to be put down, or a volunteer describing how compassion fatigue made them walk away from shelter work for years, there is always an equally deep account of how getting through that difficult experience gave that volunteer a sense of true hope. You cannot have one without the other, and Finding Shelter presents that balance in a way that I believe no other work has done yet.
What do you want the public (the folks who aren’t volunteering or working in animal welfare) to feel or think when they encounter Finding Shelter?
I want this work to be a welcoming access point for the public to easily understand that animal shelters are a place of joy and happiness, of healing and comfort, full of dogs, cats, and other pets that are ready to be adopted and provide unconditional love. Through seeing portraits of volunteers and shelter pets loving each other, I hope viewers are moved to adopt or become volunteers themselves.
The old stigma of shelters being depressing places where pets die does not serve us anymore. More people need to get involved in volunteer work, more animals need to get adopted, and I want this series to get us closer to that. This is a way to instigate change.
What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about pets in shelters and/or the people who care for them?
Shelters are full of people who take care of the animals for free. They don’t get paid to walk the dogs or clean up after them, nor do they get paid when they have to see hundreds of animals get euthanized. They simply care deeply about the welfare of those animals, which in turn makes the animals more prepared to find a forever home. I wish people were more aware of the dance that happens between survival and rescue for both the human volunteers and the abandoned animals, because it’s just so incredible.
If people would like to support your work, how can they do that?
Right now I need all the support I can get, as I am about to embark on a 15 day journey across the country photographing hundreds of volunteers for Finding Shelter.
Please visit my Kickstarter page which runs from August 11- Sept 11 2015, get to know the project, and donate what you can to help make this project into a beautifully published book. In return you can choose from some really special backer rewards- like a signed copy of the book, a signed print, etc.
You can also support the project by printing out this sign: fill it out, take a photo of your shelter dog/you and your shelter dog, share it with us on social media and tag #weallneedshelter
Recently I was interviewed by RadioMD about compassion fatigue and animal welfare workers. The interview, only 10 minutes long, is a very quick introduction to compassion fatigue which might be helpful to you if you’re looking for some basic information.
To help round out the interview (seriously, 10 minutes goes by in a flash when you’re talking about a BIG subject like this!), here are some answers to a handful of Frequently Asked Questions people often toss my way:
What is compassion fatigue? What are some common signs and symptoms?
Compassion fatigue is the physical and emotional exhaustion that arises from the constant demand to be compassionate and effective in helping those in need and who are suffering. It’s the natural consequence of the stress from doing the emotional labor of helping animals and people who are in need.
Dr. Rachel Remen has said that “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”
And that’s the truth – we can’t do this work and not experience some emotional wear and tear. Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard. So there’s nothing wrong with you if you experience it. You’re not broken. It’s a normal reaction to the work that we do. Most of us will experience CF at one time or another in our careers. There is no shame in that. Once we understand this, we can take steps to help ourselves.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Compassion fatigue looks different for each one of us. So my symptoms might be different than yours. A few common signs of CF are:
Physical and emotional exhaustion
Isolating ourselves from others
Anger and irritability
Sleep problems – like insomnia and hypersomnia
Bottled up emotions
Persistent physical ailments
Inability to embrace complexity
Using substances to numb out or self-medicate: drugs, alcohol, food, etc.
Workaholism – taking on more and more work and responsibility and blurring boundaries (common at the onset of CF)
A reduced ability to feel empathy and compassion for others and ourselves. Being disconnected and desensitized – it’s the opposite of the very qualities that brought us to the work in the first place (common in experienced caregivers)
Are there any unique challenges that animal care workers face that contribute to their experience of CF?
While animal care workers have a lot in common with other helping professionals – they do have one unique factor that contributes to compassion fatigue which is euthanasia. No other helping professional is tasked with ending the lives of those they care for.
Look, no one gets into the business of helping animals because we want to end their lives, so euthanasia causes a lot of distress for us and on different levels: moral distress, primary trauma, and secondary traumatic stress.
It’s a common myth that only people who perform euthanasia in high numbers can be affected by CF. While euthanasia techs have been shown to have high levels of CF and burnout, you don’t have to be the one performing the euthanasia to experience CF for two reasons:
One, it’s an ever-present aspect of the work that all of us are doing. Euthanasia is a major issue in our workplaces and in the wider animal welfare community. Two, no matter what your job duties entail – from the front desk at a shelter to the ACO in the field – we’re engaged in helping those who are in need. That means CF is an occupational hazard for all of us.
What can animal care workers and other helping professionals due to manage the impact of compassion fatigue in their lives?
The first step to managing the impact of CF starts with understanding what it is and learning to recognize how it’s affecting you personally. We can’t do anything about it, if we aren’t aware of what it looks and feels like. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project by Patricia Smith has some great information and the book When Helping Hurts about CF in the veterinary professions is also very helpful. Read a book, hire someone to do a workshop at your organization, etc.
In addition to understanding and acknowledging CF, we need to assess our own levels of stress and self-care. Often, we spend all of our time and energy caring for others, and we leave ourselves with absolutely nothing leftover to take care of ourselves. Learning how to set limits and create healthy boundaries, so that we have enough time and energy for daily self-care and stress management is critically important.
When we’re suffering from CF, the quality of work can become compromised, which means we can cause harm to others. So we’re ethically obligated to take care of ourselves. It’s not optional. Caring for ourselves is not indulgent or selfish. Authentic self-care fills us back up each day, so we have something to give.
Try to do something each day that allows you to be present with yourself, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, singing, dancing – anything that allows you to detox from your day and create a sense of groundedness to help carry you forward. Create some internal space for yourself.
And finally researchers have shown that social support is of huge importance when it comes to managing compassion fatigue. We tend to isolate ourselves more and more when we’re feeling the effects of CF. We need support. Find a friend at work, talk with a therapist who understands compassion fatigue, build a peer support group that meets each month, don’t ignore the phone calls from your family…do whatever you can to stay connected to those who care about you.
If someone is feeling depressed or having suicidal thoughts, what should they do?
If you’re feeling hopeless, anxious, depressed, or working through unresolved trauma, please seek out professional mental health help. Self-care strategies alone aren’t enough. Ask a friend or your primary physician for a referral or visit a site like PsychologyToday.com to find a professional in your area.
If you or someone you know are suicidal or in crisis, you need to get help immediately.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK for help. The call is free and totally confidential. A trained crisis worker will listen to your problems and will tell you about mental health services in your area.
If you suspect a friend or coworker is suicidal, encourage them to get help, give them this number or take them to get help, and let them know that you and others really care about them and want them to be well. And keep following up with them, even after the crises looks like it has passed.
What’s the good news?
The good news is that we love our work. Animal care workers have some of the highest levels of compassion satisfaction – which is the joy we get from doing our jobs well. When we take care of ourselves and reconnect to the joys of our work, it can help us become more resilient to the challenges of the work.
Making a conscious effort, through simple exercises, to be aware of and acknowledge what we enjoy and find meaningful about our work not only boosts our positive outlook, but it helps us to stay empowered: it’s our choice to keep doing the work we love, despite how difficult it can be.
Another good thing is that the conversation about compassion fatigue is growing and more and more resources are being created every day to address this important issue. Veterinary social workers, support groups, online classes, and webinars are all now available to help animal care workers access the help they need to be healthy while they continue to do good work.
Where can people learn more about compassion fatigue?
Check out the resources listed on my website. You can also take a class with me online. My online program Compassion in Balance, was created specifically for organizations who care for and work with animals.
Earlier this year I came across an article about compassion fatigue that introduced me to the fabulous work of Enid Traisman, CT, MSW. A certified grief counselor and Director of the Pet Loss Support Program at DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital in Portland, OR, Enid recently co-founded the DoveLewis wellness program to support the staff in the benefits of self-care and work-life balance.
Research has shown that in order to effectively manage compassion fatigue, changes must happen at both the individual and the organizational level. So I was thrilled to learn that DoveLewis was making staff wellness a priority, incorporating different approaches to supporting staff as they engage in this challenging work. Eager to learn more, I reached out to Enid.
Jessica: Can you tell us more about Wellness Month at Dove? How did this idea become a reality?
Enid: Over the years I have seen amazing veterinary professionals pour their hearts and souls into their jobs, and I have seen countless numbers of these wonderful folks suffer from compassion fatigue and burnout. Some leave the field, others continue to practice but no longer enjoy working.
Veterinary care is high stress for a variety of reasons, including the shorter lifespan of animals, economic restraints inhibiting optimal care, difficult clients, cranky coworkers and long, long hours. Many veterinary professionals are born to be caregivers. Caregivers by nature thrive on helping others, often at the expense of taking care of their own needs that they may deem unimportant or even selfish.
As a certified grief counselor and compassion fatigue specialist I have seen firsthand and studied the importance of teaching self-care and work-life balance to veterinary professionals. For years I have been providing workshops teaching these skills to facilitate veterinary professionals in continuing and enjoying their career helping animals.
The workshops, complete with self-assessments and tools to build a viable self-care routine were well received and helped people understand why they were feeling fatigued. BUT, it is hard to put into action changes necessary for combating and healing from compassion fatigue – and that is where the idea for bringing Wellness Month to our staff came from.
Along with my co-worker, CVT and certified yoga instructor Josey Kinnaman, we designed a month full of activities and opportunities that would be easily accessible for our staff. Our goal was to encourage and make it easy for our staff to experience a variety of self-care practices in hopes of starting new healthy habits.
Some of the opportunities provided at the hospital:
* Fresh healthy snacks and drinks daily to help sustain their physical bodies.
* Yoga sessions twice weekly to support a healthy mind and body.
* Onsite massages to sooth sore, tense muscles.
* Guided imagery with a Buddhist monk to teach relaxation of the mind and body.
* Art activities to unleash creativity, including scented bath salts and neck warmers.
* A contest to encourage exercise, hobbies, and replenishing activities outside of work.
How has the response from staff been so far?
Many of the staff were enthusiastic and appreciative of the many activities we brought to the hospital for them to participate in. We had upwards of 70% participation in some of the activities. We heard many great comments and requests to continue with wellness activities every month.
What advice do you have for management, of animal shelters and vet practices, who would like to support their staff’s emotional health and to encourage workplace wellness?
The support of management is essential for impacting positive changes in the culture of work environment. By providing the expectation and allotting time for employees to take good care of themselves it is more likely to happen. Even small changes like implementing regular breaks for the staff so they can eat a healthy snack, hydrate and take walk around the block for some fresh air will make a huge difference.
I have heard managers say that it is too busy to take breaks…I disagree; staff members will be more effective, make fewer mistakes and be more pleasant with their co-workers and patients if their basic needs are being met.
Managers can support work-life balance by limiting overtime scheduled. With a tough job like veterinary care, it is very important to have time away from the stressors of the job to unwind and replenish between shifts. They must have time to catch up on sleep and have some fun and exercise to be at the top of their game.
In the long run, supporting self-care and work-life balance will come back to the hospital tenfold, happier staff, well cared for patients and clients and less turnover.
Euthanasia plays a big part in our experiences of compassion fatigue. Many of us are grieving the deaths of the animals we’ve cared for, at the shelter or at our vet practices, as well as comforting our clients who are grieving the loss of their pets. What, if anything, can we do to make this part of our jobs less traumatic?
Acknowledging how sad euthanasias are and recognizing that they take a toll emotionally is a good first step. Too many veterinary professionals push the sadness down and shrug their shoulders thinking this is just part of my job. Yes, it is part of the job, a sad part that needs to be consciously attended to.
Additionally, I try it instill in our staff that grieving clients do not need to be fixed; their sadness need not weigh heavily on us because grief is a normal, healthy response to loss. The people who are grieving loved their animals deeply and experienced the joy of the human animal bond. In this field, we love those people for taking good care of their companions. And, people will heal from their grief in time and with support. I explain to the veterinary staff that by providing a compassionate euthanasia and expressing heartfelt condolences for the family they are providing a meaningful service and setting the groundwork for a healthy healing process. Trust that these folks will heal, but first they need the space and support to grieve, not to be “fixed”.
Are there any rituals or practices that might help veterinary hospital staff to cope with the challenges of the workand let go of painful emotions?
Each individual and/or hospital will benefit by creating a ritual to deal with the buildup of sadness. Some hospitals dim the lights for a moment to signify a euthanasia will be taking place to acknowledge the reverence of life and death, a moment of silence instead of background chatter about weekend plans. For some people, taking a moment at the end of each shift to say the names of those who died, writing their names and a special quality about them in a book or reciting a prayer. For others it may be getting a weekly massage to release the sadness and tension they were holding in their bodies. Someone else may take a hike to a beautiful spot and lay stones in memory of each family who has suffered a loss.
What’s a simple self-care act that consistently replenishes and sustains you?
I practice healthy eating, exercise, and sufficient sleep regularly. I enjoy the guilty pleasure of watching TV in the evening with my cats and dogs on the couch with me. My hobby is fused glass work, creating in my studio replenishes me. I hope to hike more this summer and plan a trip to somewhere exotic.
Is there something that gets in the way of your self-care? How do you move through it?
Not enough time is a constant struggle. I remind myself that I must prioritize and make time to eat healthy, exercise and sleep. It is a continuous struggle to put my basic needs first, so that I don’t become cranky and irritable about helping others. When I feel I am going off course, I remind myself to be mindful, to do some easy, quick deep breathing exercises, and schedule in a nice bath or movie night in the immediate future as a gift to myself.
Do you have a mantra or favorite quote that serves as a guidepost in your work?
The heart first pumps blood to itself before it pumps blood to the rest of the body; I must take good care for myself if I want to take good care of others.
How would you finish this sentence?
Self-Care is: essential to sustain our ability to help others.
Any other words of wisdom?
Self-care is not a one-time activity. It’s not a finite project like building a house. It’s more like the ongoing creation of a garden. It’s never done. It requires ongoing attention. Yet, like the joy of tending and continually creating a garden, there can be great contentment and satisfaction in tending to our own bodies, hearts and souls. Service to the animals is sacred. And so is taking great care of ourselves.
Yes, that’s so well said. Thank you Enid!
For more of Enid’s work, visit her DoveLewis blog, or pick one of her five books, which includes My Pet Remembrance Journal designed for bereaved pet owners.
p.s. If you’re outside of the Portland, OR area and would like to deepen your understanding of compassion fatigue, you may be interested in my 2015 summer class, Compassion Fatigue Strategies, at the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program or one of my other online courses.
Over the past few months, I’ve teamed up with the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program to create Compassion Fatigue Strategies a four module, online, self-paced class for people who work with animals. And it starts June 15th!
So, you may be wondering: What’s the difference between this new course and my other class, Compassion in Balance? Overall, the class materials are very similar, but the courses are set up differently. The original class, Compassion in Balance, is scheduled, with new materials released each week. Students move through each lesson together at the same time.
Compassion Fatigue Strategies is totally self-paced. Think: On Demand. You’ll have access to the whole class on day one and you can do the work at your own speed. But the biggest difference is that this new class offers you the chance to earn continuing education class hours, which Compassion in Balance does not.
You may prefer to take this new course via the University of Florida if: You want a class that starts this summer, you like doing things at your own pace, and you need continuing education credits.
If those things don’t really matter to you, then you might want to wait for the next round of CiB which will run this September. But, I wanted to make sure you had the option to choose, in case you’re itching for a class right away!
Still not sure? Here’s a handy chart that breaks it down in detail:
June 15, 2015
(you can start the class any time until July 18, 2015)
Mid November 2015
August 15, 2015
Type of Course
Scheduled: new lesson made available each week
Self-Paced: all lessons made available at once. Materials released upon enrollment, beginning June 15
Registration Start and End Dates
Enrollment begins August
Enrollment closes September
Open for enrollment now!
Enrollment closes July 18
Continuing Ed Credits?
15 continuing education class hours
Yes. To receive CEs, quizzes must be completed by August 15
Yes, until August 15, 2015
Live calls with Jessica
Access to Course Materials
Until October 15, 2015
Open, No Limit
Canvas (via UF)
No matter which class you choose, you’ll still get to hang out with me! Both classes have discussion boards where we can talk about what you’re learning and both classes have multiple live phone calls, so we can get together in real time.
To learn more about the new class, check out this page. Or, if you want to go right to registration for the UF class, Compassion Fatigue Strategies, hit this link.
And if you have questions, leave a comment of feel free to email me.
Psst, I have to tell you something: Even though I’m teaching people about reducing stress and increasing self-care, there are plenty of days when I struggle to practice those very things for myself. I mean I really, really struggle. So much so that I worry that one day I’ll be outed for not having my life in perfect Zen-like order. The headline might read:
Self-Care Sham: Woman Busted Yelling at Old People in Traffic While Eating Fistfuls of Swedish Fish.
That’s when I try to remember to use a little self-compassion and I talk to myself the way I would talk to a friend – you know, lovingly – I remind myself that it’s OK that I’m not perfect at these things. I’m practicing.
Truth is, committing to helping others and changing how you take care of yourself is not easy work and no one is perfect at it.
The first couple of weeks of my class, Compassion in Balance, are challenging ones for the students as they become aware of the many ways our work has had a negative impact on their lives. During this time, I want, very badly, to wave a wand over each of them and “POOF!” their stress and troubles away.
And there are days when I feel pretty crappy myself and wish someone would “POOF” it all away for me too.
But there is no “POOF!” There is only practice.
To change our lives and how the work impacts us, we have to practice self-care, practice building resiliency, and practice managing our stress.
The word practice is so important. A practice (noun) is something we repeat over and over and become more proficient in it, though not necessarily perfect. I have a yoga practice. I’m so-so at it, but I practice (verb) yoga regularly to build my competence. Almost every morning that I choose to do yoga, my overall practice gets stronger and I reap more benefits from it.
Some weeks I struggle more than others. Like when I got back from a trip to New Orleans recently and hadn’t done yoga in a couple of weeks. I suddenly didn’t have an iota of balance and tipped over every time I tried tree pose. But I kept showing up for myself and bit by bit I’m strengthening my practice.
Engaging in the process is the thing the supports me, even when the results aren’t perfect.
It’s the same with stress reduction, mindfulness, or self-care. These are practices that we build, one baby step at a time. When we regularly choose to eat fresh foods, talk with friends, take a break, set healthy boundaries, or pause to breathe deeply when we are stressed, then those choices add up to a self-care practice that supports and sustains us. They may not fix the whole problem right there on the spot, we may take a few steps backwards now and then, but these choices do have a positive impact – both in the moment and as they build up over time.
Here’s the thing about practices: we’re doing them all the time, whether we are intentional about it or not.
For example, in addition to having an awkward yoga practice, I also have an Eating-a-Pint-of-Ice-Cream-When-I’m-Stressed practice. And a Get-Reactively-Rude-When-I-Feel-Overwhelmed practice.
Every time I choose to grab ice cream, instead of feeling my emotions and coping with them in a healthy way, I’m practicing (and strengthening) this unhealthy practice of numbing out. The more aware I’ve become about my unhealthy practices, the more able I am to notice them quickly and can choose to do otherwise. Every single time I make the choice to step away from the cookie dough, I practice taking care of myself in a more authentic way.
It’s not easy. I’m very competent in those unhealthy practices, since I’ve been doing them for most of my life! But I know that each step I take is either one little step closer to compassion fatigue or one step closer to wellness. So I choose more carefully.
We could all benefit from taking a look at what we practice every once in a while. What are we repeating, strengthening, ingraining in ourselves?
Upon inspection we might find that some practices serve us well, or used to, and some of them aren’t so helpful. We might need to consider gently letting them go and making some changes.
I recently read an interview with Brigid Schulte, author of the book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. Here’s what she had to say about changing our behavior, “I wish I’d known how powerful baby steps are. I would think of something that needed changing, and feel like I had to do it all at once, and I’d start, make a herculean effort, and usually give up.”
Don’t try to pull a Hercules. Build your practice of self-care one small, but effective step at a time. You don’t have to do it perfectly or get it right all of the time. Just keep practicing.
p.s. my classes can help. small steps, new ideas, with support along the way.
Back when I used to smoke there was nothing that came between me and my cigarette breaks while I was at work. It didn’t matter if I worked at a restaurant, a corporate office, or at a Cancer Support Community (criminal, I know!). Every 90 minutes or so, I stepped outside for a 5-10 minute smoke break.
I never questioned whether or not I deserved this break. Or thought about what else needed to be done that would be a better use of my time. I didn’t justify these breaks to myself or anyone else. I didn’t consider it optional or feel guilty about it. I “had” to smoke, so I always made the time to do it.
I quit smoking more than a decade ago, so obviously, I’m not suggesting that anyone should start (or continue) smoking, but I am wondering:
How do smokers easily find time to take 2-3 smoke breaks a shift, but the rest of us can’t find the same amount of time for stress reduction and self-care breaks?
Even at the animal shelter, I used to see my coworkers running around with a cigarette and lighter in their fist, so that they could step outside as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Smokers took their breaks come hell or hoarding case.
In my online class, Compassion in Balance, the group and I look at ways to monitor and manage our stress levels at work. We start off small: noticing how we experience stress and trying simple, effective stress reduction techniques like deep breathing or taking a few minutes outside.
Overwhelmingly, the initial response to this is that nobody feels like they have time to stop for a break, even when their stress levels are going through the roof. Every moment feels urgent and so the idea of stopping, even for five minutes, seems impossible.
I totally get it. For years, I felt the same way, especially when I was working at the animal shelter, but also when I was dog walking in Philadelphia. The stress of the job and the enormous workload had me functioning at one speed: overdrive.
In fact, I’d wager that about half of my energy back then was being wasted running in circles, trying to multitask, forgetting stuff as I sped by, fixing mistakes I’d made because I’d rushed through the work the first time, and, of course, taking frequent stops to complain to others about how much there was to do.
Over the last couple of years I’ve worked hard at building a different response to stress. I’ve learned that the only way I can calm down and do better work is to slow down.
Even when I’m really busy, I try to take a few short breaks throughout my day. This practice – and it is something I have to practice because it doesn’t come naturally – pays off for me, as well as the people and pets around me each day.
“Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. They also report a nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being.”
See? Taking short breaks throughout the day is good for business and it’s good for us.
Everyone (myself included) hopes there’s a magic pill or killer karate move we can employ to bust stress once and for all. Sadly, no one has discovered that move yet, so we’re stuck with what we know works: Becoming aware of how we personally respond to stress, then taking the time to address our needs by using simple and effective stress reduction and self-care methods. Doing so throughout our day, every day, keeps us from burning out.
You might be thinking that you function pretty well when you’re stressed. That’s probably true, but only for short periods. There are negative consequences when we don’t engage in stress reduction, says everyone, including the Harvard Business Review:
“Our bodies sends us clear signals when we need a break, including fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus. But mostly, we override them. Instead, we find artificial ways to pump up our energy: caffeine, foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, and our body’s own stress hormones — adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol.
After working at high intensity for more than 90 minutes, we begin to draw on these emergency reserves to keep us going. In the process, we move from parasympathetic to a sympathetic arousal — a physiological state more commonly known as “fight or flight”.
One consequence of relying on stress hormones for energy is that the prefrontal cortex begins to shut down. We become more reactive and less capable of thinking clearly and reflectively, or seeing the big picture.”
Take a look at the last sentence. Does that sound like anyone you know in animal welfare? It was me to a T, I know that much.
So that brings me back to the smoke breaks. We could learn a thing or two about self-care if we deconstruct that break:
First, the breaks are short, but regular. Second, they’re outside and away from work. Third, they activate breathing that’s different and deeper. Fourth, they’re usually not taken alone, so there is some social support during the break too. All good for us.
We need to do the same for ourselves, minus the cigarettes. Every one of us would greatly benefit from taking 5 minutes away from work to go outside for some fresh air, to breathe deeply, talk with a friend, or just look at the sky and feel the sun on our faces. Doing this every 90 minutes or so will lower our stress which will lead to higher quality work from us and better health for us.
I’m guessing some of you are saying that there’s no way you could take 5 minute breaks every 90 minutes. Honestly, I know how busy you are and I know the to-do list is endless, but I still say you have the time.
The perception that we don’t have time to take short breaks is just that – our perception. We feel like we can’t, but the truth is that there are plenty of times throughout the day when we can excuse ourselves for a five minute stretch or a few minutes of slow, deep breathing.
We just have to believe that it’s non-negotiable. It is. Because if we don’t pause to lower our stress levels, our work suffers and so do we.
So the next time you think you don’t have time, consider your five minutes of stress reduction the equivalent of a smoke break. And like any smoker, you’ll find a way to do it. Getting addicted to self-care breaks is a habit we should all pick up.
Try it: Set your phone’s alarm to go off every 90 minutes and see if you can disengage for a few minutes of stress relief. I double dog dare you.
P.S. for the smokers: May I suggest that you substitute just one of your smoke breaks for a cigarette-free self-care break instead? Taking 5 to care for yourself in a healthy way now, while you’re still smoking, will make it easier for you to cope when you decide to quit. And I do hope you quit. Because as much as I appreciate the benefits of the breaks you’re taking, all the good stuff is negated by the nicotine you’re sucking down. Talk to you doctor about quitting. It was the best thing I ever did for myself.
Some days I don’t know where the time goes. Before I even look up from work, I realize it’s time to call it quits for the day. I didn’t do yoga or meditate or anything I had planned to do for myself. Blergh.
Self-care is tricky, not because it’s all that complicated, but because most of us put it at the bottom of our list of things to do. One reason (among many) for that is because we’ve aimed too high and made it hard for ourselves to meet our self-care goals.
I’m a big fan of underachieving, so I wanted to share some easy ways to add self-care into our lives.
Those of you who subscribe to my e-letters already know what’s up, since you got a version of this list over the holidays. But for those of you missed it, here are some of my favorite, simple ways we can all take care of ourselves:
1. Rent or download a free audio book from the library and listen to it while you commute to work. Make your journey an entertaining one. I just listened to Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Listening to a story that isn’t related to work is stimulating and refreshing. Plus, it makes the commute a pleasure instead of one more chore we have to do.
2. Buy a humidifier/aromatherapy diffuser. Use with lavender oil. Put it near your bed. Sleep well.
This one is rocking my world lately. I cannot wait to go to bed, so that I can turn this gadget on. Which means I’m not staying up late to watch one more TV show or to surf the web. As soon as I can, I hit the sheets, so I can huff some lavender. So I’m increasing the quality and quantity of my sleep: that’s some excellent self-care right there.
3. Take an online drawing class with the super talented Lisa Congdon. It’s free for a 2 week trial, after that it’s $10 a month (cancel any time). Get your imagination and creativity rolling on your day off. I’ve been doodling like a maniac since taking this class which is relieving some of my stress and connecting me to a part of myself that I let slide over the years. It’s important that we all have hobbies outside of our work.
4. Grab a book that has nothing to do with work or school and read for pleasure. I just finished Outlander (thanks for the recommendation Nat!). It was light and entertaining which kept my attention, even when I was stressed out. Stories like this help me let go of obsessive thoughts so I can rest at night.
5. Subscribe to a new free podcast and listen to it on the way home from work or while you’re making dinner. It’ll help you decompress after a tough day. On Being is my daily bread. I just finished listening to Serial too and it rocked my world.
6. Ask a friend to join you for a class you’ve wanted to take, like yoga or painting. Then book it. No backing out. I look for Groupons for classes to save money. And I found a yoga studio that is donation only. Search your local area for sweet deals, so money isn’t a barrier. Being with friends helps us feel less isolated and learning something new helps us to feel more competent. Both build resiliency.
7. Do nothing. Treat your self to some rest. Really. Sit down, be still, and breathe for 5 minutes (or more). Allow yourself some quiet time. Listen to the birds. Be present to the moment and let the rest go. Cultivating calm is self-care.
So those are a few things that replenish and sustain me. But maybe you prefer knitting cat sweaters or laying someone out in roller derby. Whatever it is, add it to your to-do list or your schedule and make time to do you in 2015.
Self-care doesn’t have to be overwhelming. But we do need to plan for it and stick to our commitment to ourselves, so we don’t let weeks and months go by without taking care of our own needs. So before any more time slips by, brainstorm a few easy ways that you’ll care for yourself in the coming months and make it happen. You deserve it!
Just in case you missed the announcement in my latest e-letter…
Compassion in Balance is now open for registration!
I created Compassion in Balance, a unique six week online program, because I want animal care workers to have access to the tools and resources that will help them to be well, while they do good work. This is the class I wish I’d had, back when I was working at the animal shelter!
Class kicks off on Monday, February 9th, 2015. And enrollment is now open!
You can read much more about CiB, including who this class is for, what we’ll cover each week, and my answers to your FAQs right here.
I want to keep this class a safe, supportive environment, so I’m limiting enrollment to just 30 students for this session and half of those spots are taken already!
Want to be one of those 30 people?
Read more about the class, think about it, and then enroll. I don’t want you to rush into signing up for the class without really knowing what you’re getting into!
Go ahead and check it out. Really, go on. I’ll still be here when you get back. I have some emails to answer and a few videos of baby goats to watch, so I’ll be here for a while.
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