Do You Get Nightmares About Work?

Find out why that might be a sign of compassion fatigue.


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When I present my favorite compassion fatigue talks, there is a section where we discuss the symptoms of compassion fatigue. Among the list of symptoms is “recurring nightmares.”

I remember when I first discovered compassion fatigue, I was fortunate enough to come across a resource that walked you through teaching it to others. It recommended you first take a good, long look in the mirror to see if YOU have compassion fatigue. 

Well, I did, in fact I often joke that I am the ‘poster child’ for compassion fatigue.  Here are some of the symptoms:

  • Bottled-up emotions
  • The impulse to rescue anyone (or any animal) in need
  • Isolation from others
  • Sadness and apathy
  • The need to voice excessive complaints about management and co-workers
  • Lack of interest in self-care practices
  • Reoccurring nightmares and flashbacks
  • Persistent physical ailments
  • Difficulties concentrating and mentally tired
  • Prone to accidents

As I went through the list of symptoms, I was dutifully checking them off one by one, the realization of my state of mind slowly sinking in.  But when I came to ‘reoccurring nightmares’ I suddenly skidded to a stop.  Well, at least I do not have THOSE, I remember thinking. 

It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when I woke up from another dream about being at work in the veterinary practice, that I realized, yep, I had to check that one too!  These dreams about work, they were never dreams about the good days, when there was a potluck lunch and somebody’s birthday so there was CAKE!

Oh no, the dreams were always about ‘the day from hell’ that we all know far too well.  The patients are never-ending, the clients are insistent, the boss is mad … actually, in my dreams, I rarely interact with anyone except the boss, who is mad, who is sometimes infuriated, not always with me. All of us know that no matter the cause, working with an angry boss is not fun.  Yes, I decided, these can be qualified as ‘reoccurring nightmares.’  I had to check that symptom off the list as well … shoot.

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The most amazing thing is that I came to this realization years after I had spent my life day working in a practice.  In fact, I STILL have them, now many years after my last day in practice!  And we’re not talking a dream here and there, oh no, we’re talking multiple times a week.  I often wake and think, “what is the cosmos trying to tell me?” I should go back to practice?  I should have never been in practice to begin with?  Or, more likely, it is a part of me that I will never, ever, escape, a time in my past that will always haunt me, for whatever reason. 

For the most part I look back fondly on my years of practice … until I fall asleep, I guess.  Then all the demons come up to play, the insecurities, the mistakes, the fragile moments, the tears of grief and frustration.  Why am I doomed to relive these moments?  Maybe to stay inspired to help others make the most of THEIR careers in veterinary medicine.  Who knows, I can only hope there is some valid and positive reason why I continue to have these dreams … oh, I mean nightmares.

By the way, last night’s dream shift was different, the patients were human.  Just as I mention that so many of our colleagues are switching over to human medicine, it appears my dreams have gone ‘to the dark side’ as well!

Resource:  Healthy Caregiving: A Guide to Recognizing & Managing Compassion Fatigue, Patricia Smith, 2008, published by Patricia Smith.

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