Melissa Holcombe, Valerie Hayes

North Georgia Animal Alliance president Valerie Hayes (right) invited social worker Melissa Holcombe to speak to NGAA volunteers at their August meeting about compassion fatigue and ways to combat it.

Compassion fatigue, social worker Melissa Holcombe told a meeting of the North Georgia Animal Alliance on a recent Saturday morning, is often the cost of caring.

Holcombe works for the Catoosa County school system, but her degree in veterinary social work and her personal experience rescuing and rehabilitating possums place her in a special position to understand the wear and tear of animal rescue on the people who do it.

“I invited Melissa to speak,” says NGAA president Valerie Hayes, “because the past couple of years have been especially hard for our group -- so many volunteers carrying more of a load than they should, cats and kittens just pouring in and needing help, the constant stress of fundraising. I felt we really needed to hear what Melissa had to say.”

Compassion fatigue, Holcombe told the group of 22 people, is not as simple as burn-out. “Compassion fatigue is physical and spiritual exhaustion, accompanied by acute emotional pain. It occurs when a caregiver takes in so much suffering of others without caring for themselves that it depletes their emotional reserves.”

Members of the group said they understood well what Holcombe was saying -- pushing yourself constantly to save one more kitten or puppy, being so exhausted by the end of a day that there isn’t an ounce of energy left for anything but sleep.

And even sleep doesn’t always come easy. Holcombe shared her own experience of lying in bed at night, agonizing over a young possum that got loose before it was ready to fend for itself.

“We’re an all-volunteer group,” says Hayes. “Many of our members work full-time jobs. They come home and scoop litter, clean pens, give medicines and give the animals in their care love and attention so they’ll be well-socialized for the families who will eventually adopt them. Many of our members admit they’re sacrificing relationships in order to save more animals.”

But Holcombe says the cost of caring can be even higher than broken marriages and friendships. If left unmanaged, she says it can lead to anger, irritability, impaired ability to make decisions, substance abuse and even suicide.

When asked what was most stressful about the rescue work they do, NGAA members said things like the inability to get to all the animals that need help, not knowing how an animal is doing after it’s been adopted and having family that feels you’re wasting your energy rescuing animals.

“I know I’m shortening my life with the stress I feel over the rescue work I do,” said one member.

Holcombe said that for caregivers, it’s not usually a matter of if they’ll suffer from compassion fatigue, but when. “You can’t leave this untreated,” she said. “There are ways to mitigate the damage it can do to you.”

Here are some of Holcombe’s suggestions, not only for those in animal rescue, but for all caregivers who find themselves stretched to the limit and on the brink of breaking.

  • Rotate or trade out responsibilities with others so you’re not doing the same thing all the time.
  • Have a life outside your caregiving -- hobbies, time spent with family and friends, anything that gives you a break, takes your mind off the weight of your work and makes you a more balanced person.
  • Avoid negative people and don’t engage in negative talk yourself. “Be careful of what you say,” said Holcombe. “It can become how you feel.”
  • Practice mindfulness. That can mean meditation, being deliberate in decisions and actions, practicing relaxation techniques, attending to your spiritual needs.
  • Eat nutritiously, exercise and get enough sleep. If necessary, take mini-breaks throughout the day -- 10 minutes here and there to sleep, read, meditate or do whatever refreshes you.
  • Identify your support system and use it. Ask someone to lend a hand or “babysit” for an evening or a day.
  • Get organized so not so much thought and effort needs to go into things that should be routine.
  • Develop boundaries. Know where you’ll draw the line for your own well-being. Don’t take on more work than you can reasonably do.
  • And “crunchy” ideas: Keep a gratitude journal, look at pictures of cute animals or babies, dance, watch funny videos.

Some members of NGAA shared a few things they do to relieve the stress of constant caregiving.

  • Keep a “Positive Jar.” One member jots down good things that happen to her and puts the notes in a jar, to be read at times when she’s feeling down.
  • Pull weeds. Mow grass. Get out in nature.
  • Color in advanced-level coloring books for adults.
  • Cross-stitch (this member admits she cross-stitches cat designs).
  • One young man, a new cat foster parent with the group, was candid: eat.

Hayes says NGAA has been working harder to help members avoid compassion fatigue. “We’re working on developing a better support system and on recognizing when someone is helping more than is good for them. We’re trying to make sure everyone is recognized for what they do and feels appreciated by the rest of the group. And we’re doing things like we did today -- bringing in speakers and providing literature on how to do this work and remain emotionally balanced and healthy.”

Hayes says that it’s also deeply encouraging to NGAA volunteers to know they have the appreciation and support of the community. “We see the bad side of human nature so much -- animals that have been neglected, abused, rejected by people who bought or adopted them, sick kittens, the results of low spay/neuter rates -- that when someone says thank you or cares enough to donate some money to help us pay vet bills and buy food, medicine and supplies, it makes our spirits soar and gives us a burst of energy to keep making a difference.”

Holcombe encouraged members of NGAA who felt they might be suffering from compassion fatigue to seek help and she let them know that she was there if they needed her.

Tamara Wolk is a reporter for The Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga., and Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga.