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The Stages of Change: Are you Ready to Tackle Compassion Fatigue?

You know you’re struggling with compassion fatigue and you know you need to do something about it, but are you ready? Let’s talk about something a lot of us have a hard time with, and that’s change.

In this article we’re going explore what we call in the mental health field, the stages of change model. Now, because you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you have, to some degree, a curiosity about compassion fatigue. Chances are maybe you’re struggling with it. However, struggling with a problem and doing something about the problem are two different things. So for example, how many of you have struggled with smoking but were eventually able quit? Well you probably didn’t just wake up one day and quit. The process was probably a lot more complex than that. Maybe you quit and started up again and quit and started up again. You finally quit when you were ready to quit.

You see, when we, as humans, face difficult decisions, such as whether to stop smoking or recognizing our own compassion fatigue and making the decision to take intentional steps toward the path of recovery, we tend to go through a process.

This process is called the stages of change model, and focuses on six stages:

· The first stage is called precontemplation. This is the stage where we don’t even have compassion fatigue on our radar. Or if we do, it’s something that other people struggle with. Or if you’re struggling, you’re not really aware that it’s a serious problem. There’s a bit of unawareness or downright denial happening at this stage. You may say, “All animal care workers have compassion fatigue. That’s just the way it is.” Or maybe you’ve tried to address it in the past, but felt you were unsuccessful, so you’ve pretty much just given up and have no intention of trying to change anytime soon.

· But since you’ve come across this article, you’ve likely moved beyond the precontemplation stage. Perhaps you’re in the second stage, contemplation. Here, there’s an awareness of the problem, but you’re a bit resistant or hesitant, or undecided on whether you really want to put in the effort to change, even though maybe you can see the reasons why you should. For example, you know if you addressed your compassion fatigue, maybe you would feel better mentally or physically. If you felt better, maybe your job would be more enjoyable, or you would have the energy to put forth to things like family and friends, or hobbies that you used to enjoy. But there’s still this sense of ambivalence. So maybe if you’re currently in this stage, you’re educating yourself on compassion fatigue and management strategies, but you have yet to implement those strategies.

· The third stage is called preparation. Once you get to this stage, you’ve decided you are going to make a change and you know what steps you need to take. You might even start taking baby steps toward your goal. You’ve made a commitment to building resiliency and you’ve got an action plan.

· Once you’ve moved into the fourth stage, the action stage, you’re likely now taking more significant steps toward your goal. Maybe you’ve started to see a therapist or you’ve developed a consistent self-care routine. While this can be an exciting stage, it’s also the point where you need to be the most committed, the most disciplined, so you don’t slip back into old patterns.

· Now you might think that’s the final step, however, remember I said that real, significant change is not that easy. Which brings us to the fifth stage, called maintenance. This is where you’ve taken your action steps such as seeing a therapist or engaging in self-care, and these steps have become routine. They’ve become a habit, a non-negotiable part of life, just like brushing your teeth or taking a shower. Now this doesn’t mean that compassion fatigue doesn’t rear its ugly head from time to time. What it does mean is that you’ve got a grip on it. But you also recognize that as long as you work with animals, you’re vulnerable. You know what your warnings signs are, you know what you need to do if you start to feel worse, and you’ve developed a management strategy that’s now been in place for some time.

· Now, there is another stage that some people go through, and that’s called relapse. And that can happen at any point during the five previous stages. Relapse, just as the name implies, means you start to revert to previous behaviors. Now – and this is important – if you’ve been working through the stages and you start to struggle with compassion fatigue again, it does NOT mean you’ve relapsed. You’ve only truly relapsed if you start to use the unhealthy coping skills you used previously. So this could mean for example, you start to use drugs or alcohol again. You stop going to therapy and revert back to stuffing everything down. You stop engaging in your self-care routine. These would all be examples of relapse. If this happens, you’ll need to re-enter the stages of change, and at what stage you re-enter, will look different for everyone. Again, relapse is not inevitable, but it is possible. So just be sure you always have an awareness of it.

It’s important to remember that whatever stage you’re in, it’s not wrong! Again, it’s just part of being human; it’s just part of the complex process we go through when we need to make a change, even if it’s for the better. And generally, as humans, we don’t like change!

Well this is all well and good, you might be saying. But how do I progress through these changes? I’m glad you asked. Here are some of my top tips:

· Start by listing the pros and cons of building resiliency or managing compassion fatigue.

· Try to identify any positive outcomes that may arise from making this change.

· Start to think about any barriers or obstacles to achieving your goals work on problem solving.

· Ask others for support or find an accountability buddy.

· Focus on making some baby steps and develop an action plan.

· Once you’ve got momentum going with those baby steps, commit to your action plan and stick with it until it become as automatic as brushing your teeth.

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