Veterinary medicine is a stressful profession. Patients’ lives depend on you, clients are demanding, hours are long and unpredictable, pay is low, and younger vets have student loans and looming anxiety about the future in the mix.
Yet it’s also a profession where it’s vital to have good mental health, and not only for your own sake. Being able to stay calm in a crisis is key to making good clinical decisions. Your patients (and your clients!) can sense your mood and be reassured or agitated accordingly. A vet who’s able to enjoy their work, despite all the stress, is a gift to the profession.
You may feel that you’re a long way from being that vet right now, but there are realistic, practical steps you can take to support your own mental health, and through it, the mental and physical health of your patients.
As a vet, it’s tempting to be intensely self-critical – but letting your inner critic bully you will do nothing to improve your performance. Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a colleague or a friend. Treat yourself with respect and kindness. Make time for hobbies and activities you enjoy – set boundaries so your work doesn’t become your whole life.
Being positive doesn’t mean ignoring the fact that bad things happen – that’s impossible to do as a vet. It means choosing to focus on the good things. Notice the little moments that make you happy, whether that’s catching a beautiful sunrise, getting a wag from a patient, or just a really good cup of coffee. If you have a habit of reacting negatively to situations, try to see the humour in them instead – research shows laughter can reduce stress, relax your body, and even boost your immune system.
Surround yourself with good people.
Don’t let yourself become isolated – connect or reconnect with family and friends, even if it’s virtually. Make time to stay in touch with your support network or to get to know new people outside work.
Get help when you need it.
Seeking help is not a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of strength. Depression or anxiety can be hard to beat without professional support. So if you think you might be suffering from a mental illness, and especially if you’re having suicidal thoughts, do what you’d do with any other illness: see a doctor. With treatment, people can and do fully recover from depression and go on to lead rewarding lives.
Take care of your body.
Physician, heal thyself. Your physical health affects your mental health, so make time for some nutritious meals and a bit of exercise, and try to avoid numbing your feelings with excessive alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. Most importantly of all, try to get a decent night’s sleep. Research indicates that lack of sleep contributes strongly to depression.
Practise stress management.
In veterinary medicine, stress will happen. You can’t avoid it, so do something intentional to manage it, whether that’s getting out in nature with your pet or journalling.
Speaking of journalling, try writing down something you’re grateful for every day. Written expressions of gratitude have been found to boost happiness. Writing thank-you notes to your loved ones – or even your colleagues – works, too.
People who forgive report better mental health and higher life satisfaction. Nobody hurts others for the heck of it; everyone is suffering in some way. Try not to react with anger but to understand and respond with empathy.
Quiet your mind.
Be in the present. Research shows that just 15-20 minutes a day of quiet reflection, whether that’s meditation, mindfulness or prayer, can improve your mental state and your outlook on life, and reduce depression and anxiety.
Give yourself something to look forward to.
While routines may make us feel more secure, too much monotony isn’t healthy. If you need a boost, try mixing it up: take a different route to work, go for a walk somewhere different, rearrange your bedroom, eat something you’ve never tried before. A change of pace can lift your mood and give you a new perspective on whatever’s troubling you.