Veterinary Mental Health: A Self-Care Guide For Vets

Veterinary mental health

Veterinary mental health is a hot topic at the moment.

As vets, we put ‘life and limb’ on the line every day to help those around us. We sacrifice our time and energy to assist animals in need- frequently at our own expense. It is this, amongst other factors (such as long hours, veterinary debt, etc) that drives many of us to a breaking point. 

This is why self-care is of the utmost importance. A proper routine can prevent or alleviate a great deal of the mental burden, helping you build resilience and maintain a positive attitude towards life in practice.  

In this article, we look at veterinary mental health and how you can manage yours at work.

Veterinary Mental Health: Strategies To Boost Your Wellbeing

Track Your Mental State

Before creating a self-care strategy, you need to recognize what you’re trying to manage (emotionally). 

Perhaps you have always struggled with anxiety or are just a bit worn down from work. Whatever it is, knowing exactly what you are trying to relieve, and why perhaps it has come about is crucial. 

Below, we have listed some definitions and signs of common wellbeing issues vets experience. This may help you articulate your feelings better. 

Compassion fatigue:

Compassion fatigue (also known as vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, or secondary victimization) is the result of a veterinary caregiver’s close relationship with their patient and their families. It is well documented that vets frequently take on an emotional burden dealing with multiple traumatic cases and the effects on both pets and people – leading to a chronic state of emotional depletion.

Signs you may be suffering include:

-Sadness

-Apathy 

-Social isolation 

-Intrusive thoughts 

-Flashbacks 

-Physical/mental exhaustion

-Physical health conditions (i.e. recurrent colds)

-Self-neglect

-Work dissatisfaction

-Incessant venting about work

-Substance abuse/overeating

Burnout: 

Burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal work stress. It is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and professional inefficacy1

Signs of it include:

-Feelings of hopelessness

-Exhaustion

-Alienation from job-related activities 

-Reduced performance2

Anxiety (generalized): 

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can range in severity. It becomes a problem when such feelings inhibit everyday activities.

Although there are many types of anxiety, general signs include:

-Feeling restless or worried

-Having trouble concentrating or sleeping

-Dizziness or heart palpitations3

Depression: 

Depression can be characterized by feelings of persistent sadness and a lack of interest or pleasure in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities.

Signs include:

-A deep feeling of sadness/emptiness 

-Lack of interest in activities

-Lack of appetite

-Sleep disturbances 

-Tiredness

-Concentration problems4

A mood diary can be great for monitoring your mental wellbeing. Mood diaries can help you identify aspects of your life that may bog you down or stress you out, offering a clearer idea of how to manage these feelings. Creating a mood diary can also help you process stressful events at work (such as euthanasia appointments), decreasing your chances of burnout and compassion fatigue in the long run. 

Apps such as Moodily or MoodPanda are both convenient ways to keep a tab on your headspace. Alternatively, keeping a standard diary recording the date, mood, and events of the day can be great. 

Utilize Mindfulness 

We talk a lot about mindfulness at VetX International because it is a convenient, inexpensive, proven and accessible tool vets can utilize to boost their mental wellbeing. 

Mindfulness (for those who are unfamiliar) can be categorized as: 

‘The awareness that arises by intentionally paying attention, in the present moment and in a non-judgmental way, to the flow of experience’.

Mindfulness-based interventions for problems such as compassion fatigue, burnout, stress, anxiety, and depression have all been shown to be highly effective, both in terms of prevention and treatment. Mindfulness has also been shown to improve attention, cognition, and behavior in participants5.

If you are new to mindfulness, apps such as Buddhify, Headspace, or Calm are convenient and user-friendly.

Check out this resource below we have created, outlining some easy mindfulness exercises you or your colleagues can do to relieve feelings of stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, and compassion fatigue. 

Click here to access it.

Exercise Effectively 

Exercise is very beneficial, both physically and mentally. 

According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should get around 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity exercise a week6. But for veterinary professionals, this can be difficult, given how little free time they get outside of work. 

To get real bang for your buck, try and either incorporate exercise into your routine (i.e. walk or bike to work) or choose an exercise that is especially effective at boosting mental vitality. 

Below we have listed the best exercises for mental wellbeing:

Running- Running is not only cost-effective but also convenient (which is great for vets with ever-changing schedules). Research has found that repetitive running can change our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine, boosting mental performance. The repetitive motion of running has also been found to have a meditative effect on the brain, easing anxiety. If you are a running newbie, couch to 5k is a fantastic program that eases you into a running routine. 

For a case study on the benefits of running for vets, click here. 

Hiking in nature- If you struggle with moderate to high-intensity exercise, walking is for you. Walking is low impact and easy to get into. For an additional mental boost, try walking in nature. Studies have found that nature walks can decrease the prevalence of stress hormones in the body, boosting mental vitality. 

Veterinary mental health

Yoga- Whilst yoga can be a little less user-friendly, various studies have shown that regular practice reduces feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety7. Yoga can also be really easy to get into, given how little equipment you need. Want to try it out? Yoga with Adrienne is a great channel to get you started. 

Nutrition 

Your diet may have a bigger impact on mental health than you may think. 

Nutritional psychiatry as it is called is a rapidly growing field of research in psychology. Emerging evidence suggests that our diet can play a large role in our mental functioning, both helping prevent and treat certain psychological illnesses. 

Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have shown that eating a western diet (characterized by a high volume of processed foods) can increase the risk of certain psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression. 

Furthermore, a growing body of research has found that our gut health can influence our mental vitality. Some researchers believe that there is a correlation between the modulation of gut microbiota (through probiotic/prebiotic foods and supplements) and certain psychiatric disease8.  

Veterinary mental health

Although this research is in its infancy, plenty of studies have alluded to the benefits of following a Mediterranean diet. A Mediterranean diet incorporates the traditional eating habits of people boarding the Meditteranean sea (including France, Greece, Italy, and Spain). It is generally high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil. 

Besides numerous physical benefits, this diet reduces depressive symptoms and increases the chances of recovering from depression altogether9

If you would like to try out some Mediterranean dishes, click here. 

Therapeutic Treatments/Self-Help 

Psychotherapy, counseling, or talk therapy can be beneficial for vets. 

Because of the stigma associated with mental health, many people shy away from such treatments. But the reality is that plenty of people have gone through therapeutic treatments and seen tremendous benefits as a result. Psychotherapy is effective for a variety of mental health issues, teaching patients life skills that extend beyond the therapist’s office10.

If you’re interested in therapy, you can either go through your doctor or find a therapist directly through online directories. 

If you are interested in seeking help directly, check out these sites:

Psychology Today therapist directory (US) 

Mind therapist directory (UK)

Australian Psychologist directory (AUS)

Sometimes, therapy isn’t viable for vets. Whether it is because of money, time, or even embarrassment (not that there is any reason to be!) alternative options may be more viable. 

Whilst self-help books (as in, legit ones written by professionals) aren’t sound replacements for proper therapeutic treatments, they can be a useful start point for busy working professionals.

When scouting for a good self-help book, look for books that have been written by accredited professionals, who are respected in their fields. One such book as a start point would be Man’s Search For Meaning, an incredible book on finding purpose, written by Austrian Neurologist and Psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl. 

Everyone can benefit from a little self-help, so give it a go! And an audiobook version can be consumed while you commute, taking up less of that precious ‘you’ time.

Make Selfcare As Routine As Clinical Care

Veterinary medicine is an amazing field to work in, however, it can come with its challenges. 

How can you care for animals when you’re not even taking care of yourself? Putting yourself in a vulnerable position by overworking and neglecting your psychological needs benefits no one, including your clients. 

So next time you contemplate checking your emails after hours or catching up on some paperwork, think of instead what you can do for yourself to recharge. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so fill it whenever you can. 

If you would like to make some small steps towards a happier and less stressful career, download our free mindfulness resource. This has exercises to help you manage stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, and compassion fatigue. 
Download it here.

References:

1-  ‘Stress: Concepts, Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior | ScienceDirect.’ https://www.sciencedirect.com/book/9780128009512/stress-concepts-cognition-emotion-and-behavior. Accessed 12 Jul. 2021.

2- ‘Recognizing the Signs of Burnout and Compassion Fatigue.’ https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/recognizing-the-signs-of-burnout-and-compassion-fatigue. Accessed 28 Jun. 2021.

3-  ‘Overview – Generalised anxiety disorder in adults – NHS.’ https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/overview/. Accessed 28 Jun. 2021.

4-  ‘Depression – WHO | World Health Organization.’ 30 Jan. 2020, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression. Accessed 29 Jun. 2021.

5-  ‘Mindfulness, Compassion, and Self-Compassion Among … – Frontiers.’ 31 Jul. 2020, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01683/full. Accessed 29 Jun. 2021.

6-  ‘Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition – Office of ….’ https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf. Accessed 29 Jun. 2021.

7- ‘The Best Exercises for Anxiety and Depression, According to ….’ 1 Jun. 2020, https://www.health.com/condition/depression/these-are-the-best-exercises-for-anxiety-and-depression. Accessed 29 Jun. 2021.

8-  ‘The role of diet and nutrition on mental health and wellbeing – PubMed.’ 14 Jul. 2017, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28707609/. Accessed 29 Jun. 2021.

9-  ‘Mediterranean Diet and its Benefits on Health and … – NCBI – NIH.’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7536728/. Accessed 29 Jun. 2021.

10- ‘Research shows psychotherapy is effective but underutilized.’ 9 Aug. 2012, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2012/08/psychotherapy-effective. Accessed 1 Jul. 2021.

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