When I started mental health counseling in 1993 there was little literature on secondary traumatization of the counselor. I found myself feeling intense physical pain, difficulty breathing, overwhelming sadness, and obsessing on my client’s stories of trauma and pain. My physical and cognitive symptoms where to such an extent that I felt inadequate as a counselor, and did not tell my supervisor what I was going through as I was afraid that she may think I was not fit to work with clients.
Fortunately, over the last 10 years in the field of counseling, compassion fatigue has become ethically mandated for counselors, opening up for counselors to talk about their own cognitive and physical reactions in supervision to their clients’ trauma. This is necessary in order to keep the professional helper healthy to transition a client from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) into Post-Traumatic Growth.
Regarding elephants, I suspect many of you reading this blog may have experienced overwhelming grief and sadness in viewing videos of the chronic unconscionable anguish elephants are subjected to by humans to quell their selfish desires and make money exploiting these animals for “entertainment”. Crushing the spirit using ropes, fire to frighten, calves taken away from mothers, and more suffering that would last decades. You may have followed one elephant, signed and shared numerous petitions, given money. And yet, year after year, the elephant is still being tortured and forced to work. How can your empathetic heart not feel great sorrow?
On numerous Facebook posts that focus on helping elephants globally, I often see comments from people who are so blinded by pain and anger that they respond using swear words, suggest that they are currently weeping, and feel despair. They feel nobody one listens. Nothing helps. These comments ring true for me as they reveal “compassion fatigue”, which if not addressed will push the advocates to give up trying to help the elephants and eventually feel guilt and shame for doing so.
So, what can we do to stay emotionally and physically healthy whilst staying active in elephant advocacy?
1. Self-Compassion- Research has shown that people who practice self-compassion are healthier mentally. Do not judge yourself harshly. Compassionate and empathetic people are beautiful people. We inspire others to help in crisis, we feel the pain that others feel and in doing so are gift to the world as we listen, empathize, and are in full-presence of witnessing their pain. If we don’t care for ourselves, and put everyone else’s needs before our own, we may end up becoming resentful, fatigued, and ultimately collapse due to anxiety. Prolonged anxiety can lead to auto-immune disorders, cardiac problems, sleep problems, digestive problems, migraines and more.
2. So, how do we care for ourselves? Coping Strategies for self-care. Use the buddy system. Feeling isolated is a precursor to pain and suffering. Find a buddy you can do the A, B, C’s with. A=Affect, meaning talking about emotions, B= Behaviors, talk about how your behavior changes when feeling compassion fatigue, and C= Cognitions, talk about how your thoughts change when fatigued. This would require good listening, and compassion for each other. Start each meeting with a promise that the conversations will not be just venting, but rather a commitment to positive change.
3. So, what are tangible self-treatments you and your buddy can do to combat compassion fatigue and secondary trauma? Trauma gets stuck in the body. Move, move, and move. Release the trauma by going to the gym, going for a walk, connect with nature. Humans weren’t designed to live in boxed cars, drive and live at a boxed office, sit in front of the T.V. Science has proven repeatedly that exercise and connection greatly reduce cortisol levels (stress hormones) in our bodies. You’ll feel lighter and less mentally burdened in doing so. When we are depressed we often don’t feel like exercising but it’s vital to do so. There are yoga videos you can do at home. The one that I use has yoga exercises that focus on anxiety and mental fatigue, Yoga for Beginners and Beyond, you can find it on Amazon. Remember, buddy system is to openly share grief and pain but to take good care of each other, using mindfulness, and self-compassion. This will avert illness and help you be a voice for elephants.
4. Mindfulness: When traumatized, our oldest part of the brain (brain stem) sends hormones to the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for flight, fight, or freeze, that then shuts down the Broca area of the brain which shuts down language. Mindfulness is defined as a psychological treatment one can self-administer to bring experiences to the here and now. It is most beneficial whilst in the fight, fight, or freeze states of mind.
5. Gratitude Journals. Putting feeling into words changes brain chemistry. Keep a daily journal of what you are grateful for. Science has proven that gratitude journaling reduces over-firing of the amygdala in the brain and enhances the overall quality of life.
6. There are many more treatments one can use to reduce trauma. Consider working with a therapist as many are well versed on sharing how to care for oneself when they feel, see, and hear traumatic stories daily. Lastly, we save many elephants. We do, indeed. Celebrate our successes; that our efforts lead elephants to sanctuary, we educate people around the world about the abhorrent treatment of elephants. You do make a difference. Be self-compassionate and keep a journal of elephant successes that you can access, and move away from self-harming compassion fatigue.
- Dr. Leslie Lakatos Kane: Mental Health Counselor, Education, and Supervision