How I Developed Psychological Resilience in Emergency Veterinary Medicine

When it comes to the important traits veterinary professionals need to have in their back pocket, psychological resilience is one of them. According to the American Psychological Association, being resilient is "successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands."

As veterinarians, we're frequently faced with stressful situations, difficult encounters, and a high level of pressure to succeed—all of which can lead to anxiety and depression if left unchecked. While stress in our profession is often unavoidable, studies show that psychological resilience can reduce the negative impacts of stress and lead to better overall mental health and well-being.

I can personally attest to the power of resilience. I have faced the hopeless throes of depression and battled my fair share of crippling anxiety. I have also pulled myself out of dark places, done the work to become more resilient, and witnessed the incredible benefits. Here are a few lessons I've learned throughout my own journey to psychological resilience.

Commit to Self-Care

I once prided myself on "being tough" and mistook it for resilience. Early in my career as an emergency veterinarian, I coasted on a few hours of sleep each night, survived on caffeine and granola bars, stayed at work late to prove my dedication, and often joked away my sadness and my body's aches and pains. I did this until I reached a point where I simply couldn't anymore. I remember laying in bed one morning after a string of extremely challenging shifts and thinking "I can't go on like this."

That day, I made the decision to start taking better care of myself, because I knew I had no other choice. I started getting enough sleep; I fed my body with nutrients instead of empty calories; I spent more time in nature; and I left work on time and enjoyed my days off. The process was gradual, but I quickly started seeing improvements in my mental and physical well-being. I eventually realized that being tough is not the same as being resilient. Forced stoicism can feed off poor health and lead us down a path toward negative coping skills, but resilience thrives on self-care and promotes well-being.

Practice Positive Thinking

The first time someone told me to practice positive thinking, I distinctly remember rolling my eyes and thinking, "What do they know?" Turns out, they knew a lot. As a species, humans are experts at negative thinking—it's in our DNA. In order to survive, our ancestors had to focus all of their attention on the bad things, like predators, so they wouldn't become someone else's dinner. As Lucy Hone, Ph.D., a leading expert on resilience often points out, we live in an age in which we're overwhelmed by different "threats" all day long, and "our poor brains treat every single one of those threats as though they were a tiger."

On any given day, a busy veterinary practice is rife with stressors and potential threats. From angry pet parents and sick patients to staffing issues, these are all negative things that our primitive brains love to shine a light on. Recently, however, I made an active choice to try something different. During my evening commute, I started encouraging myself to think of the best thing that happened during my shift. It could be an appreciative client, a funny moment with a co-worker, or a satisfying end to a difficult case. After doing this for a while, I discovered something wonderful. Once I began practicing gratitude for the things that went right, I was less bothered by what went wrong.

Learn to Let Go

As the daughter of an addict, I have a distinct memory of sitting in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as a little girl and hearing those around me recite the Serenity Prayer. "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

As an adult, I learned these words don't just apply to those battling addiction. Veterinarians regularly face highly stressful scenarios—some we have control over and some we don't—and we often have difficulty letting go because we hold ourselves to high standards and pride ourselves in our perfectionism.

The simple fact is that no matter how hard we try, we can't control everything. We can't prevent a long-term cardiac patient from eventually succumbing to his disease; we can't make that notoriously difficult client suddenly show some appreciation; and we can't change the fact that some shifts are extremely understaffed. What we can do is choose where to direct our thoughts. We can learn to focus on the things that are in our control and let go of what isn't.

Reach Out

When we're feeling depressed, hopeless, or anxious, sometimes the last thing we want to do is ask for help—but that's what makes it even more vital to do so. Whether it's confiding in a co-worker about a difficult case or calling up that one friend who can always make us laugh, sometimes the best thing we can do to gain perspective and feel better is to step out of our isolation and reach out to someone who cares.

Do The Work

Resilience isn't an inherent trait. It's not something we're born with, nor is it something we can achieve without putting in some serious work. Similar to training our muscles to develop physical strength, we need to exercise our minds through persistence and dedication.

The road to resilience can be long and challenging, but continuing to learn and grow each day means that you're on your way. You'll face setbacks as you go, but don't give up. I continue to do the work because I've witnessed the benefits. In the end, I know it's worth it, and I'm worth it. Finding resilience is a worthwhile journey that can help you both personally and professionally, and over time, you'll see the benefits, too.

Teresa Schumacher

Dr. Schumacher is a writer, photographer, and small-animal emergency veterinarian. She graduated from University of California, Davis, in 2015, then completed a rotating internship in Chattanooga, Tennessee, before moving back to her home state of Ohio in 2016. She has been practicing emergency medicine ever since, and her main professional interests include trauma care, toxicology, and veterinary mental health and wellness. Dr. Schumacher has a passion for storytelling and enjoys traveling frequently in search of new compelling stories to share. See more at 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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