In a world bursting with opportunities to improve the lives of animals, we rise to the challenge. We orchestrate a spay day for a colony of feral cats. We spar with a pet owner about the benefits of getting the pet fixed. We ferry pets to clinics for spay/neuter surgery. We write checks to cover those fees while applying for more grants to do more surgeries.

At some point each and every one of us will sag. Exhausted by what seems like a mountain of need, we think we cannot face another call for help, because where there are animals suffering, there are usually people suffering too. The heart-heavy hurt of hearing these stories daily crushes the spirit. And then we’re just plain irritated at folks who don’t seem to appreciate the Herculean effort we expended to get their 18 cats fixed — which would only have been three if they’d called a few weeks earlier. Or the callers who insist their male pets need not be fixed because they are not the ones delivering litters.

So how are we to carry on when it feels overwhelming and hopeless? Foremost, recall the progress we’ve made yielding spay/neuter as the most effective weapon to reduce animal overpopulation and suffering. Then give thanks for all of the organizations and foundations, like United Spay Alliance, that support us and make this progress possible. Celebrate and relish your contribution to reducing animal overpopulation. Gratitude improves your mood.

Still need a boost? Consider these four self-care steps to help keep you in the game:

  • Don your own oxygen mask first. They tell you that on the airplane because it’s a critical survival skill. Trying to help others before ensuring your own oxygen supply means that you’ll collapse faster and help fewer. Apply this principle to your everyday life. It’s hard to intervene in animal overpopulation from your hospital bed or from the depths of your dark depression. Get help for yourself first to make sure you survive. This might mean trying meditation, exercise, seeing your doctor, taking a vacation. Budget time for one of these right now.
  • Look up. Plan for this to be the year you lift your eyes up and away from your tech devices. Most smartphones allow you to set quiet times and do not disturb times. Take a few minutes to set a daily time across your devices where you are not disturbed for at least a few minutes. Next, put down that tech device and hold something living instead. A cat. A dog. A rabbit. A flower. A plant. Then, every single day this year, lift up your eyes from your devices and marvel at the world around you. See colors. Textures. Hues. Shapes. Contrasts. Shadows. Lights. Movements. It’s a stunning planet we live on. Look at it.
  • Say no if necessary. “No” is a complete sentence. So is, “let me think about that.” We are presented with a plethora of opportunities to help animals, but saying yes to one generally means saying no to others. Focus on the activity that will have the greatest impact on animal welfare: spay/neuter. Next, accept that neither you nor anyone else can ever do it all. If you’re unsure of whether to accept a spay/neuter project, remember you can always snare more time to mull it over by responding, “let me think about it.” Then stop talking. If you do decline, reply in one or three words: “No,” or, “No, I’m sorry.” Then stop talking. Explaining why you won’t take on a project only opens the door for someone to dispute your decision. Just say no and stop talking.
  • Hit Restart. On days where you feel like you’re holding a stick and everyone you meet looks like a pinata, step away and zip your lips. If needed, behavioral scientists have found that (seriously) dunking your face into a bowl of ice water will help reset an anxious, racing, or ruminating mind. Call it the nuclear option, but it works. If you’re adverse to this process, scientists also advise that sucking on an ice cube can help settle the mind.

So to stay in the spay/neuter movement and beat back burnout: Don your oxygen mask first, look up, say no, and hit restart if needed. Falling into the pit of deepest darkness and despair will keep you off the battlefield when America’s pets need you on the front lines of the spay/neuter movement.

Linda Chitwood is the volunteer Director of The Homeless Animals Relief Project, which provides free or low-cost spay/neuter surgery for pets living with the poor in north MS. The recipient of The Annie Lee Roberts Courage & Compassion Award from The Summerlee Foundation, Linda has 25 years experience in addressing pet welfare challenges. She is the author of $5 For a Cat Head: True tales of animal welfare, with hands-on tips for helping animals.