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Unpacking Terms 2: Empathic Strain

Empathy is defined as “the ability to identify or feel with the feelings and perspectives of others, including pain and suffering” (

Empathy is an incredible quality for a veterinary caregiver or leader to possess and to practice. Empathy allows for someone to truly understand the signs and symptoms of their patients, develop stronger connections with the animals presenting for evaluation and care, seek to support the animal guardians, and to meaningfully connect with their colleagues. Empathy for the animals being treated has been proven to increase the quality of animal welfare as veterinary professionals who practice empathy through their practice take into account both the physical symptoms as well as the emotional well being of the patients they treat.

Compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” (Oxford dictionary)

It is important to understand the difference between these two terms as for many years the neurobiologically more accurate “emphatic strain” has been referred to as compassion fatigue, burnout, or other terms. Per Dr. Charles Figley and the Compassion fatigue Awareness Project (

Compassion fatigue is a broadly defined concept that can include emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another. It is associated with caregiving where people or animals are experiencing significant emotional or physical pain and suffering.”

Recently, there has been a shift in terminology. Research demonstrates that empathy and compassion originate and are experienced in different parts of the brain. For anyone working within the medical field it is within our expertise to alleviate suffering and as such we are often exposed to prolonged interaction with it on a regular basis. Being exposed to and interacting with another’s pain repeatedly can result in a sense of feeling overwhelmed often leading us to disconnect, unconsciously withdrawing ourselves and disengaging as a coping mechanism- this is emphatic strain. We literally feel what another is feeling – be that pain or joy.

Diana Tikasz wrote “Compassion involves our ability to recognise the suffering of another without taking on that suffering as our own, combined with an authentic desire to alleviate the suffering of another”. Therefore, compassion does not get “fatigued”- it separates us from sharing the suffering we are exposed to while still being able to recognise it in others. (

Tend Academy explains the shift in terminology as follows: “Much like love, humans have been found to have boundless compassion. However, under continued pressure and exposure to their own and others trauma, humans’ ability to feel empathy towards others can be strained. In fact, the ability to feel compassion and empathy have different neural pathways. Research also points out that tapping into compassion and learning to grow and harness it, is a key to overcoming this strain”.

Christina Clarke at the Wakeforest School of Medicine identifies the following signs of emphatic strain:

  • Exhaustion: Feeling physically and emotionally exhausted and not having the energy to go about regular daily tasks.

  • Reduced ability for empathy/sympathy

  • Anger, irritability

  • Increased substance use (to distance oneself from the discomfort/stress of work or ‘numbing out’)

  • Dread of working with certain clients

  • Lack of enjoyment of work

  • Avoidance: urge to isolate from those around you

  • Heightened anxiety

  • Hypersensitive/insensitivity

  • Difficulty making simple decisions

  • Absenteeism: Unable to motivate oneself to go to work and or feeling too exhausted to work OR presenteeism – you are there in body but not in mind/spirit.

How to Manage Emphatic Strain

The first step to managing anything is being able to name it! This allows us to fully understand what we are feeling, identify what may have caused this and then begin to deal with it. Another important step to take is to validate those feelings – understand and acknowledge your feelings as being valid. This allows you to work through it without the guilt or the judgement on oneself or on those around you. Normalizing emotions and understanding that it is human to have them decreases stigma and opens us up to the myriad of resources and of community support that can help us in those tough moments.

A Few Suggestions on how to Practically Manage Emphatic Strain

  • Being aware of your own individual environmental and occupational stressors

  • Surrounding yourself with a supportive community – your colleagues at work and your family and friends outside of work

  • Discussing as a team how to share a reasonable work load for each person while still meeting the needs of the client community and patients that we serve.

  • Self-care- understanding when you need to take a step back to ensure that mentally and physically you are taking care of yourself (compassionate micro-resets during your shift and meaningful ‘rest’ when not at work)

  • De-briefing- taking the time to reflect with your team after particularly stressful cases (Note: low-impact debriefing examines what happened without retraumatizing yourself or the team with unnecessary graphic details, validates emotions that are being experienced, shifts perspective to what went well during the interaction and what can be learned, AND shifting the brain/nervous system towards regulating using a reflection on something in that person or that team’s life that they are grateful for in that moment as well).

Worldwide Vets Thrive is a 7 day mental health and self development workshop in Zimbabwe, Africa. The focus of the 32 hours of continuing education is mental health awareness and self-development. These are vital skills for any professional to improve their working environment, career longevity, satisfaction and ability to support and develop themselves and their team. The event is RACE accredited and the perfect opportunity to start learning more about developing a healthy approach to navigating issues such as emphatic strain.

If you are interested in reading further on this topic and finding out more about how best to cope with this as an individual or support your team here are a few articles we found useful on the topic!

Happy reading!

Springer Link Compassion Fatigue, Secondary Traumatic Stress, and Vicarious Traumatization: a Qualitative Review and Research Agenda

Tempo Therapy The 'Joy - Pain Spectrum' in helping: change in terminology... 'compassion fatigue' or 'empathic strain'? (part 3/5)

Vet Radar The power of empathy in veterinary care

Journal of Applied Social Psychology. The moderating role of different forms of empathy on the association between performing animal euthanasia and career sustainability

Compassion does not fatigue! Tricia Dowling. Can Vet J. 2018 Jul; 59(7): 749-750.


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