Veterinarians are typically 'giving' individuals who put the needs of their patients and clients before their own much of the time. The nature of practice, with its unpredictability and emergent cases, requires that doctors are available and flexible. The satisfaction of helping animals and people in need can be a large factor in feeling that you are making a difference in the world. There is well-deserved pride in a surgery skillfully performed or a difficult case managed to a healthy ending. However, sometimes veterinarians have no limits to their giving, and they become emptied out and exhausted.
The feeling of running on empty can be short-term, temporary and fleeting, as when you have a very messed up, busy day with schedule interruptions, equipment malfunctions or other challenges. It is especially important to take care of basic needs on these days by eating something with protein, drinking plenty of water and stopping to breathe. Listening to favorite music while driving between calls or picking a lilac bouquet to enjoy in your truck can bring you back to some joy. Engaging your senses in this way can help reset your emotional state.
Mindful breathing is particularly helpful in quieting anxiety and irritation. Count to six slowly while you inhale, and another six while you exhale. Continue this for 5-10 breaths at least, or for several minutes. If you aren’t driving, close your eyes and focus on your senses one by one. This is most effective if you are in a quiet environment outside, but you can do it anywhere. Science shows that you can quiet your limbic system in this way and feel more grounded and relaxed. This will help you to operate from your neocortex rather than amygdala utilizing logic and empathy rather than freeze, flight or fight.
Over the long haul, when the days have been long and the weeks unrelenting, veterinarians can become completely tapped out. Often there is a feeling of being trapped and having no choices. This is a dark place to be, and depression and anxiety typically follow. As doctors continue to push themselves, they lose the joy they once had in their work and become detached. Decision-making abilities and clinical curiosity suffer, and patient care and client service might decline.
In this situation, the doctor must pause for rest and reflection.
If a weekend off has no effect, a more drastic solution is needed. This is no different than breaking your leg. It is a brave and necessary act to reach out to a colleague to cover urgent care for your clients’ horses when you are this empty.
Generally at least a month of recuperation is necessary before returning to work. Understanding what needs to change for you to continue should be a focus of your contemplation. Thinking through innovative solutions and opening your mind to many possibilities can begin to rebuild your enthusiasm. Exploring and setting boundaries, readying to negotiate for a better balance and planning your future are all a part of this journey.
Most important is the realization that this is your life, and you get to choose how to live it.
Equine practice can have many shapes and sizes; you are needed and you belong!