Dealing With Anxiety In Veterinary Medicine
Anxiety disorders are prevalent within veterinary populations.
This is for a combination of reasons, such as having a high workload and exposure to stress.
There are a number of things you can do to relieve stress, like pursuing a healthy lifestyle, managing expectations, etc.
As a veterinary professional, recognizing anxiety in your patient is something that is relatively easy to spot. However, recognizing anxiety in yourself is a different ballgame entirely, and something that is often missed.
From client demands, the intensity of critical patients, the juggling of work-life balance, and having student loans to pay off, stress is a normal part of the day-to-day life of a veterinarian. But when the stress gets too much, it can directly impact our mental health.
This article examines what anxiety is, why it affects veterinarians, and how to combat it.
What is Anxiety?
According to the UK mental health charity Mind, ‘anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future.’¹
There are many different subcategories of anxiety including, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (characterized by excessive anxiety, worrying, and tension), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (characterized by obsessions and/or compulsions), Panic disorder (characterized by episodes of intense panic/fear), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (developed after exposure to trauma), and Social Anxiety Disorder (characterized by anxiety around everyday social situations) ².
Due to the different categories, anxiety can be triggered by a number of things, and present itself in many ways. So what are some of the signs?
Spotting The Signs of Anxiety:
Anxiety feels different for everyone. For some people, anxiety presents itself physically, for others, it is an internal battle with the mind.
Physical Signs of Anxiety:
Having panic attacks
Feelings of shallow and/or short breaths
An increased heart rate
Mental Signs of Anxiety:
Feeling nervous or tense.
Over-analysis of situations.
Being unable to stop worrying or ruminating.
Having a sense of impending danger.
Why Do Vets Experience Anxiety?
Veterinary professionals are often very intellectual, empathetic, and compassionate; because of this, expectations placed on oneself are high and often anxiety-provoking. This, combined with the intensity of the job, and perceived higher risks with some of the activities we perform can lead veterinary professionals to be more susceptible to suffering from anxiety.
In a 2015 study from the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), a survey of students and grads found that anxiety in veterinarians was correlated to the extremely high expectations placed on individuals.
‘In veterinary medicine, we create to-do lists based on the things we think we need to get done that day. And, that's great. And then we set about working on it. And when we achieve that to-do list, that generates a sense of self-worth, a sense of satisfaction, a sense that we did some meaningful work.’ says Dr. Dave Nicol, CEO, and Founder of VetX International.
‘But if we don't achieve it, then we have this sense of failure or dissatisfaction. And if that continues long enough, then it's anxiety-inducing.’
Another study conducted in Australia found that there were two periods where anxiety in veterinarians peaked. The first period of heightened anxiety was in the first five years after graduation. This was due to a level of uncertainty and difficulty applying practical knowledge. The second period of anxiety took place 10-15 years after graduation. This coincides with the increasing responsibility both at work and in our personal life (raising a family, buying a house, etc.) ⁵.
Work intensity, performance anxiety, and feelings of dissatisfaction can also have a knock-on effect on vets.
How To Deal With Anxiety in Day-to-Day Life
Manage Expectations Realistically
One way to deal with anxiety as a veterinary professional is by managing your expectations. Setting achievable targets is not something that comes naturally to a group of people who have been trained to shoot for the moon! But setting a to-do list and achieving only 20% of it each day is a surefire way to feel bad about your performance (when in all likelihood the output was, by any outward measure, acceptable).
This is not an easy thing to do, and it requires self-awareness, coaching, and practice. We also need to move away from a fear of failure and instead reframe such moments as deep learning experiences full of valuable lessons.
Exercise is another great way to ease feelings of anxiety. Yoga, running, and walking are all great examples. Dr. Juli Golstein is a marine mammal veterinarian and a huge advocate for running as an antidote to her anxiety:
‘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.’
Dr. Nicol suggests scheduling anything of importance, including breaks, into your diary.
‘Whether through the challenges of our cases, or the volume of work, or the things that are left on our to do list that we don't get done, we have so many ways of creating a sense of anxiety that has a negative impact on our sense of self-worth.’ ‘If we do this for long enough, it’s going to impact badly on our energy levels and lead to exhaustion. So, the way out of this is to add the important things that we often fail to prioritize into our diary’
‘Whether that's important stuff for your career development, or for your personal happiness, it doesn't matter. What matters is that you treat it with the same respect you’d treat an operation or client consultation’.
Take a Break
When the body experiences high levels of stress and anxiety, it needs rest to restore. Making time to step back by listening to music, meditating, sleeping, or practicing mindfulness are great ways to clear the head. It is remarkable how our mood and ability to handle situations can change based on what seems like small input changes.
This could be a mini-break during the day, or perhaps a part of our wind-down routine for the evening.
Seek Professional Help
Anxiety can be very debilitating, and despite your best efforts, you may not feel like you are getting to grips with things. Which in turn is another thing to feel anxious about! Professional help is something many turn to, either to prevent escalation, manage anxiety, or deal with more acute issues like panic attacks. This can come in the form of seeing a doctor or seeking counseling.
A good time to seek professional help is when:
Your anxiety impacts work or relationships.
You are experiencing panic attacks.
Your anxiety is causing other mental health issues, such as depression.
Your anxiety is limiting your function in day-to-day life.
The anxiety you experience is upsetting and unmanageable.
A mental health professional can help create a long-term treatment plan so you can find strategies that work best for you.
If you are struggling with your mental health, there are also helplines out there where you can receive support:
Mental Health America – call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746
State Wellbeing Programs for Veterinary Professionals – Numerous states have wellbeing programs to help veterinary personnel and their families.
National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Vetlife - 0303 040 2551
Mind charity – call 0300 123 3393
Remploy aims to help people remain in (or return to) their role after experiencing mental ill health – call 0300 4568114
Rethink Mental Illness – call 0300 5000 927
Samaritans – call 116 123
Beyond Blue – call 1300 22 4636
Mental Health Australia – access the website (linked) for a list of resources
Lifeline Australia – 131 114
1 - ‘Anxiety and panic attacks’ 4. Feb 2021
2 - ‘What are the five major types of anxiety disorders?’ 12. Feb 2014 ‘https://www.hhs.gov/answers/mental-health-and-substance-abuse/what-are-the-five-major-types-of-anxiety-disorders/index.html Accessed 18. Nov 2021
3- ‘Doubt, depression, anxiety – just some of the problems plaguing the veterinary profession’ 18. May 2018.
4 - ‘Dogs, Cats, Coworkers, Clients, and……. Anxiety?’ 3. March 2020
https://www.heskavet.ca/article/dogs-cats-coworkers-clients-and-anxiety/ Accessed 17. Nov 2021
5 - ‘Workplace stress, mental health, and burnout of veterinarians in Australia’ 2011
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22008127/ Accessed 17. Nov 2021
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