How Equine Veterinarians Can Avoid Mental Traps 

When it comes to dodging our own mental landmines, “Don’t believe everything you think,” says Dr. Phil Richmond.
Equine veterinarian, stressed due to mental traps.
Equine veterinarians often encounter five thinking traps, which can have a negative impact on their mental health. | Getty Images

Phil Richmond, DVM, CAPP, CPHSA, CPPC, CCFP, founder and CEO of Flourishing Phoenix Veterinary Consultants LLC, began his 2024 Midwest Veterinary Conference presentation on mental traps with a personal anecdote. Both he and his wife are small animal veterinarians, and their family includes two kids and a menagerie of pets. In January 2022, his daughter began asking for a bird, to which he said, “Absolutely not.” Birds bite, they’re loud, their family doesn’t even like birds. Fast-forward to March 2024: The Richmonds have 21 birds.  

“I just didn’t know,” he said. “I was so sure that I didn’t like birds, and I was wrong. There are things that we are certain of that are based on old beliefs, incorrect information, or something else other than our direct experience.” 

In a nutshell: Don’t believe everything you think. “As medical professionals, we base everything on facts,” Richmond explained. “But the interesting thing is we really don’t. We take in our experiences, our biases, and other things to make decisions, so not everything that pops into our head is actually the truth. So that’s what today is about, challenging that thinking.” 

Richmond then listed the five thinking traps veterinary professionals often encounter and how to overcome them to not only improve well-being but also performance in the clinic. 

Thinking trap No. 1: It’s all my fault. 

Do you ever feel completely guilty and to blame for anything that goes wrong? Like another veterinarian could have managed a case 100% better than you did? 

This trap involves self-blame and shame; feeling guilty or inadequate about a situation you have no control over; or feeling responsible for something bad that happened, said Richmond. 

To combat it, you must look at the part other people or circumstances played. “You can even break it down by percentage,” he said. For instance, you played 30% of the role, but the other 70% was the horse trying to kick you. 

“It’s not making excuses—it’s making an honest assessment of the situation,” Richmond continued. “And that’s why it’s hard to do this because it feels like you’re making excuses.” 

He likened it to the hula hoop of control: That you only have control over what can fit within your hula hoop. “We often feel like our sphere of influence is greater than it is,” said Richmond. “But we have to understand there’s a relatively small amount of things we can control 100% ourselves.” 

Thinking trap No. 2: It’s all their fault. 

The opposing mental trap is thinking our reason for failure is 100% due to other people and circumstances—what Richmond calls the “blame-thrower.” In this scenario, you might feel betrayed, disrespected, or like your rights are being violated. When something goes wrong, you can list the part everything else played in it but yourself. 

To combat this, Richmond advised asking yourself the difficult question, “What part did I play?” You must understand nothing occurs in a vacuum and you likely had some involvement. 

Thinking trap No. 3: Jumping to conclusions. 

With this mental trap of mind-reading, you believe you know what others are thinking—without having much to go on—and assume they’re thinking the worst.  

As an example, Richmond shared a social media post that read: “It’s weird how when I don’t respond to someone’s email, it’s because I’m busy. But when other people don’t respond to my emails, it’s because they hate me.” 

To combat this trap, ask yourself to find the evidence behind your assumptions. If you have a question about something, ask for clarity before assuming. 

Thinking trap No. 4: Overgeneralization.  

Richmond described this trap as believing a single negative event is part of a series of unending negative events. “If something bad happens, you believe it’s likely to happen again and again,” he said. “This can be what’s called character assassination: We make a global negative assessment of someone and base it on a single situation.” 

For instance, another veterinarian at your practice shows up late to work one day. You tell yourself he’s lazy and unmotivated even though he has no history of being repeatedly late.  

To combat this thought process, ask yourself if there’s a specific behavior that explains the situation. “One tool we can use is to ask an unbiased friend for their opinion on why your coworker was late to work,” said Richmond. “What assessment would an unbiased friend make? What are my biases toward my relationship with that colleague?” 

Thinking trap No. 5: Catastrophizing. 

Richmond described this trap as going from 0 to the apocalypse in 10 seconds. It involves blowing things out of proportion, runaway train thinking, and ruminating on worst-case scenarios. 

Take, for example, this train of thought: I’m going to lose this client -> I’ll get sent to the board -> I’ll get fired -> I’ll never get another job like this -> I’ll never amount to anything. 

“You’re making these unconscious jumps in logic, and each time you do, you’re having an emotional response that’s triggering your stress response,” Richmond explained. “Your degree of worry goes up with each one.” 

To combat it, reassure yourself that you’ve been through this before, and you can handle it. Also ask yourself what you can do to affect change in this moment. “You need to realize in the moment that you’ve done the best you can and there’s nothing you can really change,” he said. Consider the worst-case scenario, then the best-case scenario, and you can reason through to the most likely scenario between those two. 

Take-Home Message 

Thinking traps can affect equine practitioners both at work and at home. The key to mental and professional success, said Richmond, is learning to recognize and stop them.  

“Events lead to beliefs. Beliefs lead to emotions. Emotions lead to action,” he summarized. “If we can shift the thought and reframe it, we can shift the emotion.” 

Brought to you by CareCredit. 

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