What is it about working with and loving dogs that leaves people open to compassion fatigue and what can we do to protect ourselves?

When Sophia Yin died we were stunned. She was a wonderful spokesperson for positive dog behaviour awareness and namely because she did it wrong, before she did it right. Sophia took her own life.

The Journal of American Veterinary Medicine reported in April 2016 that a study showed 1 in 6 veterinarians have considered suicide. Back in July a dog shelter manager committed suicide and took 31 dogs along with her, because they were the dogs that no-one wanted. She had worked at the shelter for 45 years.

How can people who love dogs so much that they spend their entire lives caring for them, often to the animal’s last breath, keep their role separate from their sanity. It seems impossible doesn’t it, but it’s not.

There are some habits and understanding that can really help dog lovers to stay compassionate but without the crippling fatigue.

The first thing to consider is empathy. It is believed that empathy is split into 3 types.

 

  1. Perspective taking where we see the other’s distress from their point of view.
  2. Empathetic concern is the act of being able to tune to the emotion of another and show concern for their emotional state.
  3. Personal distress is the act of feeling the distress of another. This is the type of empathy that most often leads to compassion fatigue, we can experience it for any species.

We may have one, two or all 3 of the empathy types above, in any order. We all have empathy though, unless we are missing that area of the brain, but that’s a different topic altogether.

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The second thing we can do in order to grow resilience is to take back power from emotions.

It’s easier said than done, because the emotional area of the mind is the ancient part. Much older than the logical, human area of the brain. As our ancestors lived long enough to procreate, they were likely to be the most anxious of the newly emerging species, they always thought a rock was a predator and this kept them alive, albeit quite stressed. The easier going ancestors were likely eaten by the predator that wasn’t a rock.

Now, this fear, worry and anxiety was useful in keeping them safe and whilst there are few predators around today, the mind has been left with a negativity bias that still keeps us on our toes. Add this to the third empathy style above and the reason for compassion fatigue starts to become obvious. In fact, it’s surprising that it’s not even more common.

If you work with dogs and are often tired, tearful or lose track of your emotional responses, then please do consider studying emotional intelligence, or EQ as it will teach you how to balance the thinking and feeling mind into an order that helps you to cope. I’ll link Daniel Goleman’s website at the end, he’s a great place to start.

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Become mindful. Mindfulness is the wonderful combination of Eastern tradition and Western psychology. Buddhism is showing psychologists how traditional mind care works and doctors are showing Buddhist monks the mind-blowing effects that their techniques have on the neuroplasticity of the brain.

Mindfulness is not easy and it takes time, effort and meditation to get good at it, yet it will supercharge resilience against compassion fatigue. The practice involves living in the moment. It leaves behind the past and ignores the future. It involves self-directed compassion, acceptance and a heightened state of conscious awareness that allows for self-understanding.  Mindfulness will get you to the point of being able to cope and even accept the worst situations and understand your part in them with objectivity. It’s like a vaccination against compassion fatigue.

References

https://www.avma.org/News/JAVMANews/Pages/150401d.aspx
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201108/are-you-empathic-3-types-empathy-and-what-they-mean
http://www.danielgoleman.info/topics/emotional-intelligence/
http://www.thegreatcourses.co.uk/courses/practicing-mindfulness-an-introduction-to-meditation.html

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