What Are You Practicing?

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.

practice balance

 

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. 

 


 

Sending you a love-filled high five,

Why We Should All Take “Smoke” Breaks

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.

It took me many years to recognize this truth:

 

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.

 

lily tomlin

 

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.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. The New York Times wants you to take breaks too:

“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.

 

Sending you a stress-busting high five,

7 Easy, Affordable, Fun Ways To Increase Self-Care

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.

I got mine here.

MIU-COLOR-300ml-Aroma-Diffuser-Ultrasonic-Humidifier-300-0-0

 

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!

Giving you a love-filled high five, 

Compassion in Balance is Open!

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.

 

A Simple Self-Care Primer

Last month I started teaching a session of my online compassion fatigue class for animal care workers. The group of women that I’m working with right now inspire and humble me each week. I feel really privileged to be taking this walk with them.

As you can imagine, we talk a lot about self-care in class. That’s because it is the foundation for being well while we do good in the world.

Self-care is deceptively simple in that the basic stuff really works. The hard part is that we have to convince ourselves we’re worth it and then commit to practicing it. Easier said than done for almost all of us. That’s why I built the class.

For those of us who work or volunteer in helping professions (as animal care workers do), there are actual Standards of Self-Care Guidelines which serve as a constant reminder that self-care is our professional obligation. That’s because there’s a correlation between ethical violations and compassion fatigue (Gentry & Figley, 2007). And what’s one of the ways we effectively address compassion fatigue? Through self-care.

Of course, when you talk about self-care, lots of questions come up. Like what the hell is it and do we really deserve it? So with that in mind, here’s a Self-Care primer!

 

What Self-Care is NOT:

Indulgent

Selfish

Numbing Out

Pointless

Lazy

Weak

Avoiding problems

Mindless

Escapism

 

What Self-Care IS:

Courageous

Compassionate

Mindful

Restorative

Thoughtful

Necessary

Brave

Challenging

Radical

Self-preservation

Our ethical obligation

 

self care quote

 

 

You Don’t Need To Earn Self-Care By:

working the hardest

saving a million lives

being perfect

giving until it hurts

putting yourself last

finishing the to-do list

waiting until everyone else’s needs have been met

You don’t have to earn it at all. It’s your right to take care of yourself.

 

Who Is It For?

Self-Care Is For EVERYONE. 

 

It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, old or young, black, white, or brown, rich or poor. If you are alive, self-care is for you.

 

What Self-Care Looks Like:

Authentic, healthy self-care is much more than just comforting or treating ourselves. That stuff is ok too (bring on the massages and Netflix!), but healthy self-care goes much deeper than that.

It is sustainable. This isn’t about extreme makeovers and impossible New Year’s resolutions.

It meets our basic needs. That’s stuff like fresh foods, rest, exercise, medical care, etc.

It is a regular daily practice. It’s not something we save for vacations or when all the work is done (which is never).

It meets our needs in a variety of areas: physical, spiritual, psychological, social, professional, and emotional.

It is thoughtful, intentional, and it feels alright. Self-care isn’t punishment. It’s stuff we enjoy or benefit from.

It is given to ourselves guilt-free and with enthusiasm (you know, like how we give to others all the time).

It means we say no, set limits, and respect our personal boundaries, so we have enough time and energy left for ourselves.

 

How Do You Know If It’s Really Self-Care?

If you’re not sure if eating a bowl of ice cream or watching a movie or exercising is self-care or numbing/avoiding/[insert unhealthy coping method here], ask yourself why you are doing it and how it feels.

Are you mindfully eating that ice cream and enjoying every last bite, stopping when you’re full? Do you feel refreshed and alive? That’s self-care.

Are you attacking a gallon of ice cream with a soup ladle while zoned out in front of the computer, totally unaware that you’re even eating it until the container is empty and you feel sick? That’s not self-care.

Not sure? Ask yourself: How does this sustain me?

How Do I Start?

You start by picking something that matters to you and making a commitment to do something about it.

After you are successful, you move on to the next area you’d like to address. One step at a time. If you’re not sure, then I think getting better sleep is usually a good place to start. Being sleep deprived is no joke.

Expect to drop the ball sometimes. That’s life and, in our line of work, there are always crazy circumstances that throw us for a loop. Whenever you find that your self-care practices aren’t what you’d like or need them to be, just be kind to yourself and start again. You’re not a failure. Don’t waste time or energy beating yourself up.

Begin again, wherever you are, and start taking baby steps back towards your self-care practices or goals. Make it easy to succeed by lowering the bar and just get back to it in whatever way you can.

 

Why It Matters:

Because you deserve it. Because you’re alive. Every one of us deserves to reserve enough time, energy, and money to take care of ourselves. All of us. No matter who we are or what we do for a living.

But if you DO choose to work in a helping profession, then you have to engage in self-care as a professional obligation. It is not selfish and it doesn’t hurt or take away from those who need your help. Self-care is simply putting your own oxygen mask on first, ya dig? It’s what keeps you in the game for the long haul, doing good work.

Because:

jessica dolce quote

Looking for ideas to help you get started? Take a look at these super University of Buffalo School of Social Work’s free resources.

And if you work or volunteer with animals, perhaps you’d like to take my self-study course Compassion in Balance or connect with me 1-on-1 for some coaching on self-care and compassion fatigue!

Letting Go of the Outcome: How Do You Measure Success?

Today, the day after Election Day, I know there are more than a few animal welfare advocates who are feeling pretty bummed. In Maine, where I live, a ban on the cruel practice of bear baiting was voted down. And in Aurora, Colorado, voters were able to keep a pit bull ban in place (for now!). In both areas, advocates worked tirelessly to make a difference for animals in their communities. In both cases, despite their hard work, they lost.

The outcome wasn’t what they had hoped and worked for. But the outcome isn’t what determines if they were successful or not.

Does that sound a little crazy? I mean, obviously, we all wanted the votes to go in a different direction and we’d be celebrating today if that had happened. But the outcome often has little to do with the work itself.

These advocates gave their all. They did a fantastic job of outreach, education, and door-knocking work in our communities. They conducted themselves in such a way that they could be proud of themselves. They used their time well. None of that has changed now that we know the outcome of the votes. It doesn’t negate or undo the months of work they put in. That’s because:

 

That is how we can measure our success. Are we conducting ourselves in an ethical, compassionate, intelligent way? Are we using our time well and working to make things better for those around us?

Then we win, no matter what the outcome. This is important because the truth is:

Most of the time, we cannot control the outcome of our work.

 

Dog trainers cannot control whether or not their clients will listen to them. They can’t make their clients actually do the work (or do it right) each day in order to address the behavior issues that led them to seek training help in the first place.

Veterinarians cannot control whether or not their clients listen to them either. They can’t make their clients perform the medical care that will help address the issues that led them to seek veterinary care.

Shelter workers cannot control whether or not adopters listen to them during adoption counseling. They can’t make families follow through with what was agreed upon during the adoption process.

None of us can control whether our clients are telling us the truth or are just telling us what we want to hear. And we can’t control whether or not they will follow through on what we recommend.

Some of the time this means there will be negative outcomes and we need to work to accept them.

The dog trainer finds out their client didn’t listen to their advice and now the dog has bitten someone and is scheduled to be euthanized.

The vet finds out the client didn’t listen to their advice and now the dog has a chronic, painful, and more expensive condition that needs to (and may not) be addressed.

The shelter worker finds out that the adopter did not listen to them about keeping their new dog on leash and now the dog is lost and hasn’t been found.

The advocate finds out that the vote fell the other way.

These negative outcomes are not a true reflection of the quality of the work that was done (even though it may feel that way some times). When our satisfaction with our work or sense of success is attached to whether or not the outcome was a good one, it can  be very painful. It can feel like failure.

But so often, we aren’t in control of the outcome, no matter how hard we work or how perfect we try to be. Or how much the animals deserve a better ending.

We can’t control what others do. We can’t take responsibility for other people’s actions. And some of the time, bad things happen and it’s no one’s fault at all. 

The outcome has to do with so much more than any one person. These situations don’t begin or end with us. They’re often complex and always way bigger than you or me.

However, we are responsible for what we do – how we relate to challenging circumstances and how we conduct ourselves.

four fold way

 

So we can choose to commit to doing the daily work to the very best of our abilities. We can invest in the process, rather than just the end result. Instead of allowing our self-worth, happiness, and sense of success come from the outcome alone, we can determine our own conditions of success by asking ourselves:

Am I conducting myself in such a way that, no matter what the outcome is, I can be proud of and at peace with myself?

 

That is something we have some control over.

Everyone’s conditions of success will be different: Was I compassionate? Hardworking? Fully engaged? Flexible and creative? Calm and non-reactive? Did I make those around me feel respected and that I valued them?

Even when the outcome is a good one, it helps to consider how you felt getting there. Winning can come at a cost to ourselves and others too. We can choose to be mindful of how we’re engaging with our work each day and do so in a way that allows us to feel good about how we treated ourselves and others.

responsible for energy
If you haven’t read My Stroke of Insight yet, add it to your must-read list!

 

Letting go of the outcome is not easy.

Of course we want every pet to be adopted and for the adoption to work out. We want to help our training and veterinary clients in order to increase the quality of their pets’ lives. We want to win the vote and change policies so that laws are fair, humane, and effective. We want to do our best work and have our efforts succeed, so that every animal that we touch gets to live and be well.

Letting go of the outcome doesn’t mean that we stop trying or that we don’t work as hard. It’s not passive resignation. It means learning to recognize what we can and cannot control. It means being actively aware of the truth in the present moment. And trying not to attach our sense of success or happiness to the outcome.

It means that we stop beating ourselves up and have some self compassion when painful things (that are often beyond our control) happen. It means we allow ourselves to feel difficult emotions, so that we can process them and let them go. If there is something to learn from these experiences, then we do so, and we bring that knowledge with us as we move forward, so that we can do it differently next time.

And we can acknowledge that we did good work that mattered and made a difference, even if in the end, the outcome wasn’t what we had hoped for.

If we showed up, paid attention, acted with compassion, and stayed present to those around us, then we gave the best of ourselves and that is enough. That’s succeeding, each and every day.

 

Journal prompt: What are some ways you can measure your success internally, without it depending on the outcome? What would be your personal conditions of success?* 

 

*Fist bump to Jen Louden, who taught me about the Conditions of Enoughness which inspired this phrase!

 

A love-filled high five to all of you,

Depression and Suicide In Animal Care Professions: What Can We Do?

[Update: In the years since I first wrote this blog, so many wonderful veterinarians, vet techs, shelter and rescue staff, trainers, and other animal care and welfare workers have died of suicide. What I wrote about Dr. Yin below is for all of them and for all of you who are still here. We love you and you matter.]

Dr. Sophia Yin died last week at just 48 years old. It is a great loss, felt deeply by everyone in the animal care world. I didn’t know her personally, but her work truly helped me be a better advocate for my dog. Dr. Yin was a force for good for our pets. Yesterday it was revealed that she died of suicide.

She is not the only veterinarian to die by suicide this year.

I don’t know a thing about the details of Dr. Yin’s life and I don’t know what led up to Monday’s events. But I feel like losing her in this way is an opportunity to talk about something that matters very much to me: your well-being and how your work affects you.

Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard of our work with animals, whether you are an animal control officer or kennel attendant in a small town or an internationally recognized veterinarian.

Our work requires that we compassionately and effectively respond to the constant demand to help those who are suffering and in need. This can result in our experiencing the symptoms of compassion fatigue.

If you are suffering, you are not alone and you are not crazy. Everyone who works in a helping profession is affected by their work. It’s normal. It’s a hazard of the job.

As Dr. Naomi Rachel Remen so eloquently says,

“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.”

The symptoms of compassion fatigue are many and each one of us will experience the unavoidable stress of our work differently. But anxiety, sadness, isolation, and anger are just a few ways it might be showing up for us.

Fortunately. we can take steps to manage our symptoms. However, if the symptoms of compassion fatigue are not recognized and addressed effectively, they may lead to depression and a host of other mental and physical illnesses.

And, if a person already has a history of depression, working as a helping professional can make them more vulnerable to compassion fatigue.*

Another factor that contributes to compassion fatigue is perfectionism, a common trait in veterinary caregivers. Perfectionism can add to compassion fatigue-related stress, by exhausting caregivers and reducing their ability to give compassionate care to themselves – one of the very things they need to be well.

A study in the UK revealed that British veterinarians are four times as likely to die by suicide than the average person and twice as likely as their human healthcare counterparts to do so. In the book When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession, author Kathleen Ayl, PsyD writes about perfectionism and suicide in veterinary caregivers.

Ayl quotes equine journalist Candy Lawrence who wrote that veterinary professionals are typically, “…intent on improving themselves and dedicated to putting forth a 180% effort…when they fail to heal, when they fail to prolong the quality of life, this is often perceived as an internalized, magnified, and personal defeat. High levels of self-criticism are often associated with high levels of depression.”

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There’s much more to write on this topic, but I want to stop and say this:

Your life matters. You do not need to earn the right to take care of yourself.

You deserve the same level of compassionate care that you give your clients.

You do not need to be perfect or give until you are empty in order to earn your self-care.

Give to yourself with as much enthusiasm and skill as you give to others.

You can do that by getting help. If you are suffering from compassion fatigue symptoms or you are struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide, symptoms of PTSD, or anything else: seek professional help.

The cruel twist of depression is that its very nature makes reaching out for help difficult. So get help early.

Look for a therapist that understands vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Shop around until you find a therapist that suits you best (it’s ok to meet with a few different people until you find the person that is the right match for you). See if there’s a veterinary social worker nearby that specializes in the human-animal bond.

Be sure to tell your therapist about your work-related stress, so they understand that your symptoms are, in part, related to the unique nature of your work as a helping professional.

And we must help each other too.

We can do that by being more informed about the emotional toll that this work takes on ALL of us. Learn to recognize and manage the symptoms of compassion fatigue.

We can create a culture of wellness that values taking time for self-care, as much as we value taking care of the needs of others.

We can be conscious of how we stigmatize seeking professional help. We’ve got to take the shame out of talking about mental health.

Getting professional help is an act of self-care. Self-care is critical to doing effective, ethical, sustainable and joyful work.

When I worked at the shelter, I saw a therapist. It helped. Don’t deny yourself the support you need because you’re afraid of what others will think.

I will think you are brave.

What else can we do?

I don’t know what was happening in Dr. Yin’s life, but I am so sorry that she was struggling and felt such despair. She meant so much, to so many. She was making a real difference in the world and she will be missed. My heart goes out to her friends and family. I hope they take some comfort in knowing that Dr. Yin was deeply respected, loved, and treasured by people and their pets around the world.

You made a difference Dr. Yin. Thank you.

Let’s start a conversation. What else can we do? How can we support one another?

Resources:

7 Ways We Can Support Mental Health in the Animal Welfare Community

Are You Thinking of Suicide and Other Questions We’re Afraid to Ask

Suicide Hotline

When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession

CompassionFatigue.org

Pawcurious “We Love You to Death” 

NAMI: Suicide Prevention Tips

TIME: The Mystery of Suicide and How to Prevent It

VetGirl: Suicide Awareness in Veterinary Medicine webinar

University of Buffalo School of Social Work Self-Care Starter Kit

Rollin’ With Rubi Still, I Am One

Self Care Is Not Optional (my own experience with compassion fatigue)

My online self-study course, Compassion in Balance, is designed to support animal care workers as they work to increase their well being, while they continue to do good work in the world. Visit this page for more information.

*Please note that compassion fatigue is not a mental illness. It is the name of a group of symptoms that helping professionals may experience as a normal occupational hazard of their work. Compassion fatigue does not always lead to depression. Depression is a mental illness and has many causes. While they are sometimes connected, compassion fatigue and depression are not the same. However, both deserve our attention and anyone suffering from either should be encouraged to seek help. 

[repost] I Heart Boundaries: Compassion Fatigue Education

Note from Jessica: I originally shared this blog on Notes From a Dog Walker, where I write about my dog-filled life, and thought it would be handy to share it here as well!

 

Earlier this summer I met the coolest bunch of rescue and shelter workers at BAD Rap’s Rescue Jam. There were 70+ people at this unique weekend-long event and they were all stoked to get to work using the new tools, ideas, and connections picked up during their time in Oakland.

I was there to give two presentations: one for DINOS and another on compassion fatigue. My compassion fatigue talk was a way to remind them, before they jumped back into work at home, that their most important tool – the one that is capable of making the biggest impact and doing the most good – is themselves. We are our most important tool and yet, we rarely take time to care for ourselves.

As far as our Make-A-Difference-Toolbox goes, nothing trumps the tool of people when it comes to making things better for dogs and their peeps. But generally speaking, our field doesn’t spend a whole lot of time, energy, or resources addressing the needs of the people who dedicate themselves to the difficult work of making a difference for animals.

So that’s why I’m hanging out in hot tents talking about compassion fatigue these days. At the Jam I shared strategies for managing compassion fatigue related stress. There are many, but setting boundaries is an important one. In fact, it’s critical.

Setting boundaries and taking care of ourselves allows us to engage in sustainable, effective, and ethical work.

 

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I wasn’t the only one talking about setting healthy boundaries at the Jam. It’s such an significant topic that many of the other speakers touched on the importance taking care of ourselves and setting limits too. It’s the only way to stay in the game long term and do good work.

Ironically, I had “I heart boundaries” t-shirts made for DINOS a few years ago because I want people to respect the personal space of dogs. Turns out this tee is made for compassion fatigue work and was a big hit at the Jam.

So this brings me to my announcement: I’ve got a whole new website and new blog! 

The site is still a work in progress, but you can check out the new compassion fatigue resources I’m offering here:

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Just in case you’re wondering, Notes From a Dog Walker and DINOS aren’t going anywhere! I just needed a separate space for all my compassion fatigue offerings, which are aimed at helping animal care workers, to live.

So, let me tell you a little about why this work is super important to me:

1. No one talked to me about compassion fatigue, stress, or self-care while I was working at the shelter. When I had trouble dealing with the work, I thought I was crazy and weak. Now I know I was having a normal reaction to the stress of constantly providing care for people and animals in need and that there are things I could have done to help myself.

2. Our industry has a very high turnover rate. When we invest in training an employee, only to lose them to stress and trauma (the pay isn’t anything to write home about either), we lose their knowledge and skills too. If we want to make progress, we need people to stick around long enough to make a difference.

3. I respect the hell out of animal care workers: animal control officers, shelter workers, foster families, vet techs. If they’re working hard at making things better for animals and their people, then they’re my heroes. I want to do what I can to support them. This is a way for me to give to others what I wish I had had for myself.

I believe that compassion fatigue education and self-care practices need to be made a priority in our field. We can’t do effective, ethical work if we’re depleted, stressed, traumatized, and burned out.

We need to be well to do good.

 

So that’s why I’m dedicating so much of my time to compassion fatigue education these days. I’ll be travelling to a few organizations this fall, but in between my live workshops, I’m whipping up what I think will be my best offering to date:

A multi-week online class for animal care professionals and volunteers calledCompassion In Balance:

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The class will be a way for anyone who works with animals to easily access the resources they need to better understand and manage compassion fatigue. It’s going to be a safe online community where we can support each other each week, as we build our self-care toolbox and practice new strategies for being well, while we’re doing good. No one else is offering anything quite like it.

I’m finishing up the class design now and will be beta testing it this fall on a group of animal welfare bad asses. We’re gonna let them deal with all the first-run kinks. The class should be ready to launch this winter.

My goal is to get the class running for animal care workers and then later offer a modified version for people who own dogs with serious behavior or medical issues. Those of you who live with dogs like this may be suffering from compassion fatigue and you bet I want to support you too!

I still have a few months to go before I can roll out the classes, but if you’re interested in finding out more or just hearing from me every once in a while, may I suggest that you:

Sign up for my brand new e-letter!

 

Starting in September I’ll be sending out a monthly(ish) e-letter with news and notes on what’s shaking in relation to compassion fatigue and self care, plus highlights from DINOS and Notes From a Dog Walker too. It’s the best way for me to stay in touch about everything I’m working on, share the resources I think you guys will find helpful, and offer you special deals when the classes are ready to launch.

So that’s what I’ve been up to this summer and what I’ll be buried in this fall! I’m so excited to offer this to you guys – nothing makes me happier than connecting you all to life-changing resources that will support and empower you in your important work with animals.

So get psyched:

Boundaries are the new black y’all.

 

Are You Reacting Or Responding?

 

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I love this quote so much that I use it in all of my presentations. Why? Because I’m trying to convince a bunch of stressed out animal shelter workers that taking a few deep breaths really is the single best way to lower stress and change the outcome of a challenging situation.

Deep breathing sends a message to our brains to relax. Then our brains relay that message to our bodies, which lowers our heart rate and blood pressure, among other things. Check out this handy infographic from Dr. Emma Seppala on the science of the benefits of breathing.

The next time you want to jump over the intake desk to grab a member of the public who is excited about “donating” their dog to your shelter, pause to breathe deeply. Doing so allows you to pump the breaks and slow down, influencing your body’s automatic response to the stressful situation.

When we take the time for a few deep breaths not only does it change our physical reaction to stress, but it also buys our brain – specifically the frontal lobe (the part of our brain that we need in order to consider our options and communicate clearly) – the time it needs to snap into gear and produce a thoughtful response.

We need our higher thinking brain to be online in order to influence the outcome of the situation in a positive way for everyone involved. This takes a few seconds to happen and in the meantime we’re in reactive mode!

Each one of us reacts to stress differently, but I bet I’m not the only one who, when my stress levels are rocketing, becomes reactively rude. That’s a nice way of saying I snap at people.

Deep breathing allows me to get a handle on my reactive behavior and gives my brain time to catch up to my internal knee jerk reaction, so that I can choose to respond instead.

In his book Full Castrophe Living Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn shares the difference between a stress reaction and a stress response.

A stress reaction is when we react habitually and automatically to a situation. We aren’t fully aware of what we’re doing. We just react.

A stress response means that we give ourselves a few seconds to stop, become conscious of the situation, and then choose how we want to respond.

Reacting = stressed and not thinking

Responding = mindful and thinking

 

You know, just like dogs. Reactive dogs aren’t thinking when they’re over threshold. They’re just reacting to the trigger or stimulus that makes them feel aroused, anxious, or fearful.

We’re the same. When someone or somethings triggers me, my stress levels go up. If I’m not aware of and managing my stress, then I’m likely to show a habitual stress reaction and behave rudely.

But when I’m paying attention to my stress levels, monitoring the sensations in my body and the thoughts in my mind, and I address my needs by taking a few breaths to give my brain a moment to collect itself, then I can more easily access a calmer response.

Remember to focus on what you can control when you’re experiencing stress. It’s you. That’s it.

You always want to give yourself the opportunity to move from reactive to responsive. You’ll feel better and you’ll get better results.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who, when stressed, anxious, or angry, has said things that only made the problem much worse. Instead of helping to put the fire out, our stress reaction only fans the flames. And so our stress cycle continues, because now we have to resolve the original problem and need to deal with whatever fallout we’ve caused by our knee jerk reaction.

Allowing ourselves a moment to calm down means that we give ourselves the opportunity to choose to respond instead of react. Our response might be that we are more thoughtful, compassionate, or effective in how we communicate.

It might also mean becoming aware that we need to ask for help from our co-workers or boss. Or that we need to implement other stress management techniques ASAP. But breathing creates the…wait for it…breathing room to make those mindful choices.

 

Like Viktor Frankl says in that gem of a quote, it’s our response to our triggers that leads to our growth as human beings. Thoughtful responses will lead to better outcomes for all of us. But first, we have to give ourselves the space for that important reactive-responsive shift to occur. The easiest way to do that is to pause and breathe.

How will you create the space you need to respond instead of react in stressful situations? Think about it now, while you’re at ease, so that when the hot spot shows up, you know what you’re going to do to create enough space to allow for a response that will be more beneficial for the animals and people you work with and healthier for you!

 

Live From New York: It’s Compassion Fatigue Education!

This summer I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Animal Farm Foundation, located in Duchess County, NY, twice so far to present on the topics of Compassion Fatigue and self care. AFF’s annual summer internship programs, open to animal shelter and rescue workers, offer up a variety of workshops from hands-on dog training to lectures on the power of language and how to facilitate better adoptions.

The staff shared with me that in past internships, one of the recurring concerns interns brought up was how to handle burnout. So I was thrilled that we could incorporate Compassion Fatigue strategies into this year’s lineup.

Both times I had the privilege of meeting with dedicated and enthusiastic men and women who are committed to creating positive changes for people and pets in their communities around the country.

From animal control officers to volunteers, they’re all working in the challenging environment of animal welfare and I was so happy to be able to connect them to resources that will help them to continue doing their work, while also taking care of themselves.

 

The Interns Enjoying Time Off!
The Interns Enjoying Time Off!

 

But just because we’re talking about Compassion Fatigue, stress, and setting boundaries doesn’t mean we’re not having a good time!

There was a LOT of laughing around the table, especially when we realized how much we all have in common. Working and volunteering with animals presents us with unique and challenging circumstances that are often accompanied by a roller coaster of emotions – very rewarding highs and very upsetting lows.

Knowing that we’re not alone in our experiences and that there are tools to support us in this work is a powerful realization which can lead to healthy changes in our personal and professional lives.

The interns seemed to enjoy our discussions as much as I did! Here’s some of the feedback I received after the workshops:

“I’m realizing the importance of self awareness. It’s also reaffirming to have it recognized how hard it is in our field, especially when so many do not understand.” -AFF June ’14 Intern

“I felt that of all the compassion fatigue workshops, lectures I have attended over the 13 years in this field, yours was by far the most helpful and relatable.” – AFF June ’14 Intern

“I liked relating my shelter experiences with other people and with the speaker. I loved that you said to set our initial goals incredibly small so there’s no way that we can’t succeed.” – AFF May ’14 Intern

 

The internships continue through September, so I get to head back to AFF two more times this summer. In the meantime, I’m off to California at the end of this month for BAD RAP’s Rescue Jam!

High five,

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