Bearing witness to the suffering of animals can be powerful yet traumatic.
Not only are we exposed to violence, but the empathy we feel for the victims can cause us to suffer vicariously. Add to that the vastness of the cruelty, and the knowledge that it is largely unknown or ignored by most of society.
If, like me, you have chosen to watch the eye-opening and incredibly moving film Dominion (a critical documentary exposing the many ways animals are used by people throughout Australia), then you may be wondering how to cope and channel what you’re feeling.
You may notice feelings of anger, despair, grief, or hopelessness. You may feel nothing at all. You may struggle to forget the images you’ve seen, have negative thoughts about the world, feel a sense of estrangement from others, or struggle to sleep and concentrate. Given what you have seen relates to widespread systemic behaviours, you may find these responses being triggered frequently – when you’re out having a meal with friends or family, when you’re walking through the supermarket, or when you’re scrolling through Facebook. These are valid emotions and a normal response to experiencing something traumatic.
Learning about, or re-exposing ourselves to animal suffering can be a disillusioning experience.
It is important at times like this that you look after yourself to help process and cope with what you’ve experienced. Self-care may also help reduce the chances of prolonged distress that can significantly impact your day to day life. Your mental health is important for your wellbeing. And if you are an animal advocate, it may be important for the cause.
Bearing witness can also be important.
By exposing yourself to these atrocities, you have opened your heart and mind to a difficult reality that you can now impact. Bearing witness gives us knowledge that we can share with others, it can transform our own perceptions and behaviours, or it can drive us even further to advocate against an injustice.
Our empathy and willingness to acknowledge these horrors, rather than look away, can be the catalyst that helps us to create meaningful and much-needed change.
How do I look after myself?
It may sound simple but taking care of ourselves is difficult when we don’t make it a priority.
Looking after some of our basic needs is vital to our wellbeing. But self-care goes beyond this too. It involves acknowledging we’re not okay and being compassionate to ourselves, watching out for negative self-talk, and sometimes doing things we may be neglecting. It is also about allowing ourselves to take care, not because we’ve earned it, but because by simply being, we deserve it.
- Attend to your body’s needs: Feeling distressed can be exhausting and deplete our energy. Assure you stay hydrated, well fed, and allow time for leisure, relaxation, or creativity. Physical exercise and attention to adequate sleep can also do wonders for our mental wellbeing
- Get connected: It can feel isolating when you have learned about something that many do not know or understand. Reach out to someone you trust, connect with local animal advocacy groups who organise social meet-ups, or dedicate time for social connection either independently or within your organisation. Social support is incredibly effective in building our resilience.
- Make a difference: If you are feeling confused or helpless about what to do, there are many ways you can help influence the lives of animals – whether it’s donating, changing your eating habits, sharing what you’ve learned, or becoming a more dedicated advocate. As individuals, we have the power to make significant impact through our everyday choices. Choose your own goal in contributing to the cause, then put together an action plan on when you will do it and the steps you will take to make it happen. Assure your goal is specific, achievable, and measurable e.g. instead of “I’m going to do more activism”, it could be “I’m going to attend a local activism event at least twice a month”. Instead of “I’m going to help animals”, it could be “I’m going to make a list of plant-based alternatives to meat tomorrow and cook with them once a day” (these are examples, but you will be better able to judge what’s an achievable goal for you. Once you see progress, you can build on your goals over time).
- Expose yourself to positive animal imagery and news of progress. When we are exposed to a large amount of negative imagery, it can be easy to lose sight of progress and hope. Keep yourself reminded of the many animals who are living safe and happy lives due to the people working hard to make the world a better place for animals and remember that you are a part of this too.
- Watch out for your internal dialogue. You may start to think negatively about people or the world; this is another normal response. However, sometimes what we tell ourselves can intensify how we feel, and emotions that we may want to eventually work through, can linger. It is helpful to write down your thoughts, so you can work out which ones help, and which hinder, which make you feel empowered and which make you feel defeated, which connect you to others and which distance you from others. For example, when we believe that “most people are inherently cruel”, it can make us feel resentful and bitter and cause us to withdraw from others, which is often the opposite of what we want to do in advocacy or the opposite of what we need to feel better. Our thoughts can also be unrealistic, in this case, thinking people are inherently cruel misses the fact that many people intuitively care about animals and are not aware of how systems and behaviours impact them. And just like you, many people would be distressed if they saw what was happening to animals. There has been research into why most people eat or use animals, and it is not due to maliciousness or intended cruelty. Understanding the psychology of eating animals may help to diffuse that sense of disillusionment we can develop about our own species (see Carnism).
- Focus on what keeps you grounded. It can be easy to get lost in the enormity of animal suffering and the task that lays ahead of us in reducing it. Sometimes thinking about this can drive us to fight harder, but sometimes it can leave us feeling overwhelmed. Try to focus on what you can do. Ask yourself, ‘how can I contribute?’, ‘what can I do next?’, and be sure to note the achievements. There are millions of others contributing in their own way too, which means you are far from alone in this movement and don’t need to carry it all on your own.
- Avoid over-exposing. You may think you need to keep exposing yourself to animal cruelty to stay informed or support the movement. But if you are particularly sensitive to violent imagery or are already suffering, then it can be re-traumatising or self-defeating. It can strip your energy and amplify feelings of helplessness. Try to release the pressure on yourself to keep witnessing.
- Access professional support. If you are feeling prolonged or notable distress, visit your GP or local mental health professional who can guide you to the appropriate services.You may also contact online mental health services such as Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) or Lifeline (13 11 14) who offer 24/7 phone support. If you are in crisis, and are concerned about your safety, call 000.You do not need to be at the peak of suffering to access mental health support. Mental health support can be beneficial for anyone, whether for prevention of further distress, or treatment.
- Remember. While the suffering of animals may seem vast, global efforts to protect them are unremitting. The animal rights movement is one of the most rapidly and passionately growing of our time, and there are no signs that it will be slowing down
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
– Arundhati Roy
Thank you for extending your compassion to animals; Moreover, for making the conscious decision to learn about a difficult reality that many do not know about. By doing so, you have become another voice capable of empowering and changing the lives of animals around the world.
If you would like more information about the work of Aussie Farms and the Dominion Movement, visit dominionmovement.com
2 thoughts on “Coping after witnessing animal suffering”
I really appreciate this article
I have seen much suffering on social media and I find it hard to switch it off and feel sick.
I feel after reading your article I can take some positive steps such as stick to my current vegan diet and move forward from there.
I am empath and highly sensitive so exposure to any animal cruelty is very traumatic.
This does not help at all. Can someone please post a list of animal liberation online therapists? ‘do less work’ is not an option when one is flooded with the responsibility of dying and discarded dogs, every day, year after year.