Self-care? What self-care? Self-care for Advocates series part 1

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I will be speaking at BlogPaws 2015 Conference in Nashville, TN on the subject of self-care for advocates. Until the middle of May I’ll be posting a series of articles covering various ways to manage that hard work of animal rescue, advocacy and taking good care of yourself. Here is the first post and please remember today to take 5 minutes and pat yourself on the back for caring for animals and for all the work you do!

For eons I worked in a lot of different arenas as a therapist and social worker. I interacted almost exclusively with people who did not want anything to do with what I was “selling”. Child and family services, Department of Corrections clients and the hardest group of all: teens in trouble (who were my favorite!). I was able to make progress given enough time but it was demanding work. All during those years and even more so when I reduced my hours in that arena I put even more time into animal advocacy which I love however all this work can come with a cost and a pretty high one at that.

Burnout. Compassion fatigue. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Secondary / Vicarious Trauma Syndrome. It can be labeled a number of ways but the end result is that you have helped so much and worked with so many pets or people in pain without respite that you’re no longer of any use to anyone. I’ve experienced this twice. The first time I was 19 years old, working as an Emergency Medical Technician with zero skills and knowledge of how to process trauma and in those days there was no information given to us about what it might mean when we had recurring nightmares and threw up on the way to work. The second time was when I left the social worker arena. Again. And yes my colleagues and I all had to attend training on avoiding vicarious trauma and no we didn’t really pay attention to much more than where we were going to go eat lunch afterward. I treated other people’s trauma, I did very little to avoid my own.

We were cocky and confident and certainly never going to burnout! Right? Wrong…so wrong!

I cannot say this enough: no one is immune to burning out when participating regularly in caretaking / rescuing / advocacy work of any kind. You must take care of yourself if you hope to be useful and healthy for the long run.

The problem with advocacy, animal rescue, child protection, emergency medicine, etc is that the horrors you inevitably encounter are cumulative. You deal with it one day and go on, the next day and go on, the third, fourth, seventeenth and seventy-second day and things start to build up. Your going on skills start to weaken. Maybe you aren’t sleeping quite as well (although with animals all over it’s not like you ever really sleep well!), maybe you’re watching too many of the animal/child abuser posts that come in via Facebook or God forbid watching the horrific videos! If you’re doing that – stop it right now! You know what’s happening out there that’s why you do what you do! You don’t need to watch videos of abuse in action or read gory details in news articles.

So you may notice you’re a little weepy, snappish or cranky with those around you or the Starbuck’s barista who asks you Every Single Morning why you aren’t buying coffee for your husband that day after you did only that one freaking time three months ago! Deep breath!

Signs can be so subtle that only your family catches them and if you live alone and work in isolation it may really creep up on you! You don’t have to have a disorder to be experiencing the results of secondary trauma. You don’t have to let stress go until it becomes a disorder either. Establish a daily practice of some kind even if that’s nothing more than keeping a journal of your emotions or experiences, checking in with other advocates for support or taking a break from the internet to get outside for a walk.

We’ll talk more in detail over the coming weeks about more specific ways to relax and unwind. My guess is you already know several but may not be using them consistently however just as the negative effects of witnessing trauma in any format are cumulative so are the daily efforts of self-care cumulative and provide proven results in avoiding burnout.

What do you use when it all gets to be “too much”? I use a lot of essential oils, the Desire Map processes, Reiki, art/photography and writing. I cry buckets when I need to and rant and rage when I need to as well. Leave a comment below in case it may help someone else to make self-care a priority 🙂

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27 Comments

  1. I also have a social work background, and self-care is so important for preventing burnout and feeling overwhelmed by other peoples’ and animals’ pain. It is difficult to watch people and animals suffer day after day.

    I talk to close friends, write, read, focus on my own kitties, and remind myself that I am doing all that I can to help animals in need.

  2. This is a very important subject. Compassionate people are often overwhelmed with the number of cases that need that compassion. We all need to be able to create boundaries and make time for ourselves.

  3. This is advice that every rescue volunteer should read over and over. It’s a rewarding task, but boy is it exhausting. Everyone needs to take a step back and make sure they take care of themselves.

  4. So glad to see you writing this series. I’ve been thinking about it, as I see so many rescuers saying they can’t do it anymore, but haven’t put my fingers to the keyboard. Thank you.

  5. Thank you so much for this . I need a reminder often as I often come last . We do have to remember to take care of ourselves or we can’t be any help to others . I try to remind myself , “we cannot let what we cannot do interfere with what we can”
    With Peace and thanks
    Jodi from Furry Philosophy <3

  6. This sounds like such an important topic! Admittedly, I had never learned about compassion fatigue until about a year ago. I’m glad there are people like you to help others combat it!

  7. Awesome topic, Michelle. I particularly like that you included taking time to cry in your advice. All to often we try to gloss things over and power through. Somewhere along the line crying became synonymous with weakness which couldn’t be further from the truth; it’s a great release of energy and very healing. I also find writing/journaling to be a therapeutic practice and my favorite places to clear my head are taking a walk anywhere in the fresh air near water … babbling brook, lake, ocean… any water will do. 🙂

  8. This is a great post! I especially love how you said that you must take care of yourself if you want to be useful to anyone else. How true is that! It’s a lesson I keep learning over and over and over again. Thank you for the suggestions. I think I’ll take a bath tonight with some essential oils and epsom salt

  9. Great post! After leaving work for the day as an advocate, the first thing I do when I get home is change clothes. That’s my transition and then my brain truly relaxes. Strange, but it works for me. 🙂

  10. Around this time last year, I found myself tight in the grip of compassion fatigue. My animal rescue advocacy work, on top of taking care of a disabled child, had me at the end of my rope. I was so emotionally burnt out and really miserably unhappy. I had to work through a lot of guilt when I decided to step back from some of the advocacy, but I knew I had to do something or I was going to go completely nuts.

    Thank you for writing this post; this is such important information. I look forward to your session at BlogPaws!

  11. I think it is why so many of us have such dark humors.. or at least a dark side.. and one we generally try to keep hidden from others not in the same field we are in..

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