3 Self-Care Strategies for Veterinarians

May was Mental Health Awareness month, and as veterinarians, we're acutely aware that our field is struggling. We naturally think about what we can do for others to reduce their suffering, but what about our own?

Usually, we aren't focusing enough time and attention on our own self-care needs in order to prevent burnout. This is often the case as many of us feel too busy to schedule in the "me" time needed to fully experience the benefits. Let's take a closer look at how these situations evolve and what we can do to take care of ourselves.

The Importance of Self-Care

Have you ever felt too busy to take time out for yourself? Or, perhaps, you've gone away on vacation and felt guilty about the patients and workload you left behind?

Now, imagine a friend comes to you with these same feelings and asks for advice. As a veterinarian, you may very well respond to them with compassion and guide them toward taking time for themselves.

Self-compassion is the practice of treating yourself with the same kindness you would give to a friend or patient. It's an essential piece of maintaining our mental well-being. Without self-compassion, caring for yourself becomes just another item on the to-do list. For example, if you spend your entire massage or vacation time feeling guilty, you aren't really able to soak up the much-needed restorative effects of the self-care practice. You get to check the "self-care" box, but you aren't really caring for yourself. Approach yourself with the compassion needed to absorb the self care-effects.

A study completed by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) revealed that those of us in the veterinary profession are 3.5 times more likely to die of suicide than the general population. If we can use self-compassion as a way to acknowledge and address these layers before they pile up, veterinarians will be more effective at developing preventive self-care plans and avoiding dire outcomes.

3 Self-Compassion Strategies to Consider

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, consider the following three strategies to strengthen your well-being.

  Go from "AHHH!" to "Ahhh." Read how fellow veterinarians are finding focus in our latest guide.

1. Recognition: Acknowledge Your Current State of Well-Being

It's second nature to assess our patients, outline helpful treatment strategies, and implement a plan to solve our patient's problems. But it's rare that we follow these steps for ourselves. To help, the AVMA has tools readily available, including the Professional Quality of Life assessment. This assessment takes about five to 10 minutes to complete and provides an outside, quantitative perspective on job satisfaction, compassion stress, and risk of burnout. The results help you identify the areas where you should target your plan for improved work-life well-being.

2. Replenishment: Take Time to Recharge

Self-care is about restoration and replenishment. It may feel counterproductive to take time out of the day for yourself, but each time you do something to recharge, you're taking a step toward career sustainability. If you're feeling overwhelmed about responsibilities, try to pick a starting point for "me" time.

Consider taking a breathing break. Go outside or find a private area to take a few deep breaths and imagine yourself in a peaceful setting. If you can take some time to do this regularly, you'll start to feel calmer and balanced. This small restoration practice can have a big impact as mindful breathing and moving meditation not only feel good, but there are proven benefits, as well.

3. Prevention: Set Boundaries and Don't Feel Bad About It

Setting boundaries is another form of self-compassion. Saying "yes" when we need to say "no" adds to our risk of burnout. Instead of feeling guilty about saying "no" to one more patient, one more hour, or one more request, convince yourself that you're saying "yes" to time for the replenishment needed to find balance. Saying "yes" to what we need benefits our performance and ability to take care of our patients.

If setting boundaries is difficult, try this self-compassion exercise recommended by professor Scott Barry Kaufman of the University of Pennsylvania. The benefits of participating in this letter-writing exercise have been shown to improve happiness for up to six months.

Think of a situation where you need to say "no" or one that is causing you stress. Then, write a letter to yourself, in the second person, offering the compassionate advice and encouragement you would give to a friend or a loved one. Refer back to the letter the next time you're facing a difficult decision that involves a time or energy commitment.

These three strategies will empower you to take control of your mental well-being, but there are times you may need outside help. Organizations such as Not One More Vet and The Mighty Vet are committed to improving mental health in the veterinary field through support, mentorship, and education. While support groups and mentors are helpful, experts in the mental health field can provide a more detailed and strategic plan suited to your individual situation and emotional state. If the layers of stress become too much, you can get help 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline chat service or at 1-800-273-8255.

Nell Ostermeier

Dr. Ostermeier is an entrepreneur at heart and operates peopleandpet.com, a virtual practice providing telehealth and education for pet parents as well as consultations for veterinarians who wish to safely integrate holistic options into conventional medicine. She earned her DVM from the University of Illinois in 2004 and, since that time, has worked with multiple species and performed varied roles, including associate veterinarian, relief veterinarian, and practice owner. Dr. Ostermeier is an expert in integrative medicine and veterinary acupuncture, and she has spoken at conferences around the world. As an IDEXX regional thought leader, she supports veterinarians in promoting diagnostics as the basis for best preventive care and individualized treatment plans. The views and opinions in this piece are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of either The Vetiverse or IDEXX.

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