‘Running Became My Church, My Therapist, My Shoulder To Cry On’: Coping With Anxiety As A Vet
Veterinary medicine is all that I have ever known as a career option.
In fact, one of my earliest memories was riding in the car with my family to take my aging German shepherd to the vet, and on that day he never left the hospital. At just 3 years old I was too young to understand, but nevertheless, I wish it had been explained to me what euthanasia meant, or why it was done to a beloved pet. All that I knew was that my best friend was gone and my toddler heart was broken.
It was at that moment that I decided to dedicate my life to animals and veterinary medicine.
Like many in our profession, veterinary medicine was a childhood dream realized. I worked at veterinary clinics all through elementary and high school, joined all the clubs as a teenager, and developed a strict dedication to achieving my dream. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the early stress and pressure that I was placing on myself was setting me up for a lifetime of anxiety and mental anguish. However, it wasn’t all under my direct control.
We all know the immense amount of work, time, and dedication it takes to become a veterinarian. For people like me, stress and pressure was an asset at times, driving me and ensuring that I did what was required to achieve my goals, and ultimately become a veterinarian.
My childhood veterinary mentor used to tell me to become a brain surgeon, instead of a veterinarian. At the time, I thought he was saying this to see if I was truly dedicated, or perhaps he was just trying to make me laugh. Looking back, I think he was trying to save me the mental anguish and stress that we, as a collective group, are only now accepting and talking about openly and honestly.
What he didn’t warn me about was the crippling student loans, the anguish of losing patients, and the abuse from clients who would constantly accuse you of doing things for the money. The full picture of what it meant to become a veterinarian was never explained to me.
Although, even if it had been, I am not sure I would have listened.
My first time experiencing severe anxiety was in undergraduate biochemistry. As the quintessential Type A, aspiring doctor, I had spent my whole life achieving perfect grades. However, chemistry was a wake-up call that perfection was not possible, ever. I received my first ‘C’, and saw my veterinary dreams slip away, projecting the worst, that my life was over, and that my career was done before it had even started.
I know that I was not alone in these feelings, but at the time I felt isolated and scared, a feeling that would rear its ugly head throughout my life and into my career as a veterinarian. Fortunately, that ‘C’ was not the end of my veterinary career, but it did send me down a path of continued anxiety and stress. The more important the test, the greater the stress, and on and on it continued.
Fast forward to acceptance to my dream veterinary school, Auburn University. But let’s face it; any school that takes you becomes your dream school. The stakes were even higher, and the mounting pressure to perform and succeed was crippling at times.
I became my own worst enemy, caught in a Catch-22 of adding undue pressure and stress to the baseline of anxiety that lived in my brain. As a result, I had tricked my brain into thinking this stress was necessary to succeed. But, I knew something had to change.
That’s when I discovered long-distance running.
Physical fitness had always been a part of my mental health coping arsenal. If there was a fitness infomercial trend available, I had it. Tae Bo, Pilates, step aerobics, and all of the above were my therapists and friends.
Then I started running. Running, for many, feels like a form of punishment, and the mere activity of willingly placing one foot in front of the other has led to a reputation worthy of some of the most scathing Yelp reviews. But it was free, always there when I needed it, and it was the one time during my day when my brain would quiet down and let my body do the work.
Running became my church, my therapist, my shoulder to cry on, and at times my social life when I allowed others in on my secret.
I trained for, and ran, my first marathon during my first year of veterinary school. What seemed like a near-impossible feat became my saving grace. Developing the habit of training and running, while balancing an intense schedule, provided me with the most invaluable tool in my mental health survival chest. I continued to run, without fail, whether I had a test, a class, a study group, work, or a class gathering.
I learned what it meant to prioritize myself.
I continued to run. **Cue the Forrest Gump memes and music** When the stress and anxiety of losing a patient, losing a friend, or losing my heart dog happened, I just ran, and to this day – continue to just run. If it sounds simple, it’s because it is. Finding something that I can count on daily has been my saving grace through a life of anxiety and stress.
No one teaches you the right way, if any, to deal with the loss of a patient, or the heartbreak of not being able to save your pet when you have dedicated your whole life to caring for and saving everyone else’s animals. The devastation and loss I feel for every animal that has crossed over the rainbow bridge is crippling at times. No one taught me how to address that grief, which was compounded when I lost both of my heart dogs to cancer.
I, like many, have learned the art of compartmentalizing my feelings, and putting on a brave face, but the associated, deep, buried anguish is often like a volcano waiting to erupt.
So I continue to run.
I run so I can be the best version of myself. I run so I can feel close to my late dog who was my running partner in veterinary school. I run so I can turn off my brain and forget the clients who were unkind, or the countless pets who were so sick, and I just couldn’t save them. I run to honor my friends and colleagues who lost their battle with suicide because the pressure and stress of this life we chose just became too much. By prioritizing myself, I am prioritizing everyone around me. This has been the most invaluable life lesson.
But, it’s not always easy, in fact, it rarely is.
I often question my decision to become a veterinarian. There are daily ‘what ifs’, ‘hows’, and ‘whys’. But, the one thing we all have in common is our collective love and dedication to our feathered, furred, finned, and scaled friends. It’s because of this love and dedication that I continue to search for answers to preserve and protect my mind, and ensure that, like my patients, I have a high quality of life.
I know that running is not the only answer. It may not be an answer at all, for some. But if I hadn’t discovered running, I don’t know what state of mind I would be in today. Mental health in our profession has reached a point of crisis, and I have yet to find a friend or colleague that has not been directly affected, or close to someone who is fighting an inner demon so strong that the only thing they have learned to do is pretend that everything is ‘fine’.
I will continue to share my secret, on how to ‘run away’ from veterinary medicine, and encourage others to find similar ways to prioritize themselves daily.
Note from the editor: If you enjoy running and would like to raise money for a good cause, you should sign up for the Relief Rover Clinic to 5K virtual event. Run or walk at your own pace to raise money for Not One More Vet, a charity that aims to prevent suicide in the veterinary profession. To learn more, go to runvetrun.com.