Michelle Wolff Gives Tips on Avoiding “Compassion Fatigue” in Animal Rescue Work


Catster_Heroes_award1_small_5.pngA highlight of my first BlogPaws conference was meeting an amazing person: Michelle Wolff, who held a session on self-care tips for people who advocate for cats and animals in general. I was impressed with her understanding of human nature and her compassion for humans and animals. We talked, laughed, cried (well, I cried) for a time after the session. I asked her about ways we can all take better care of ourselves so we can continue to care well for cats.

Michelle is a trained therapist, a life coach, an artist, a cat blogger, and a really cool person. She has worked in child protection, as an EMT, and in animal rescue, so she knows burnout and compassion fatigue from experience.

Michelle and her cat Tonka.

I asked Michelle for simple ways that those who work in animal welfare — in big as well as small ways — can manage their lives to deal with “compassion fatigue.” Below are some of her tips by category.

tonka -closeup-michelle
Tonka takes a pet.

​Beware social media

“If I could get caretakers and advocates to take regular social media breaks, it would go a long way toward longevity,” she says. “The worst thing sensitive people can do is read the gory details about animal abuse cases, or worse, click the video that documents abuse in action. Those sounds and images can, for sensitive people, literally create a traumatic event response such as a nightmare, obsessively thinking or talking about it, and having intrusive thoughts and images bother them for hours, days or weeks.”

If this happens repeatedly, she said, you become vulnerable to secondary trauma syndrome, or for shelter workers, post-traumatic stress disorder. Ask yourself if looking at these things is really helping you in your work.

“If this is your profession,” Michelle says, “then yes, you may have to go through those things, but your average home rescue worker, foster parent, or advocate does not need that to be effective.”

Michelle Wolff and Tonka, her cat.

Commit to a “daily discharge of energy” via exercise

When Michelle worked as an EMT, an emergency room physician told her that every time they were exposed to stress, the body reacted as if it was in great danger, producing all the corresponding hormones and increased heart rate. He said it was crucial to exercise to help bodies discharge those chemicals. Otherwise, increased cortisol levels cause trouble later.

“Setting up a self-care program matters enough that it can make or break a career,” Michelle says.

The stress chemicals have to be discharged, preferably as soon as possible after an upsetting event. But regular exercise helps at any time.

Says Michelle, “It doesn’t mean you have to go join a gym. You can walk, you can do yoga, you can buy a mini trampoline, you can do Zumba with YouTube videos for free, you can lift milk jugs with water in them or literally just walk in place. I don’t buy it when people say they can’t exercise.”

Michelle also worked in a juvenile facility and says that “if prisoners can exercise in an eight-by-eight-foot prison cell, so can we. I’ve seen these guys get pretty darn buff in tiny spaces.”

Discharge energy regularly from mind and soul

According to Michelle, “We know that we’re not going to stop saving animals in one way or another, whether that’s directly being on a trap-neuter-return crew or developing policies for a rescue or being a foster parent.”

Discharge for the body and discharge for the mind and soul makes the difference of how long we last as professionals or volunteers.

Any of these are effective activities, but make sure they suit you, otherwise you’re less likely to continue them over the long term. Easy, effective and inexpensive ways to care for yourself include:

  • Journaling, especially right after an upsetting event
  • Calling a friend who can handle hearing your pain without trying to “fix” you
  • Crafting activities
  • Adult coloring books
  • Meditation
  • Self-hypnosis recordings
  • Therapy
  • Life coaching sessions
  • Regular massage or Reiki
  • Essential oils and herbal teas (Michelle used these at her Blogpaws presentation)

“The most important thing is to establish and honor yourself by keeping that ritual in place,” she says, “until you literally train yourself that this activity means relax and restore.”

Take regular vacation time

Vacation can mean spending a bunch of money and going elsewhere, but it doesn’t have to. Instead, start your day with something that is expressly meant to release any remaining stress from the night or the day before.

“If you’re spiritual, that can be prayer and reading texts,” she says. “If you like inspirational books, read some of those and do some journaling. Listen to a podcast or watch some YouTube videos that are just fun. Make a ritual out of coffee/tea and reading/journaling time.”


This is perhaps one of the simplest and most effective tools for managing stress. Michelle suggests setting your cell phone or other reminder to go off several times a day as a way to remember to intentionally breathe. Take three deep breaths in 60 seconds.

“An easy way to remember that is to ‘breathe 3/60 to turn your attitude 180,'” she says.

Three deep, cleansing breaths a few times a day is astonishingly effective in remaining mindful of where your head is and how stressed your heart is, and the extra oxygen helps.

“We know that little things add up,” she says, “and even three short times a day to return to center helps create a new groove into self-care over time.”

Michelle reminds us that none of this has to be complicated: “Put time on the calendar to use your chosen tools, to go outdoors and look at the sky, reconnect to nature, remind yourself that one paw at a time we are making a difference.”

Finally, Michelle reminds us that when people commit to self-care and personal growth, it works: “If you do the work, it works and you can stay healthy doing hard things.”

Michelle gives workshops that one participant said are “not for the faint of heart.” She describes herself as “ridiculously introverted, so I’ve had to learn how to be in the world but not of it. I think this gives me an edge as a therapist before and a coach now, in seeing how we trick ourselves into avoiding the pain we have to face in order to survive and be healthy.”

All photos courtesy of Michelle Wolff.

More by Catherine Holm:

About Catherine Holm: Cat Holm is the author of The Great Purr, the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, and a contributor to Rescued: The Stories of 12 Cats, Through Their Eyes. She’s also a yoga instructor. Cat love living in nature and being outside every day, even in winter. She is mom to six adorable cats, all of them rescues.

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