10 Ways for Veterinarians to Support Their Own Mental Health

Wellness for your mind is as important as wellness for your body.

Exercise is one way to improve mental and physical health. Thinkstock

Mental health is essential for a full life, and it can be affected by a myriad of things, some life-style related, some genetic and some simple fate. Stress is a negative contributing factor in mental as well as physical health. Loss and grief can take a terrible toll on mental health. It is important to remember that both physical and mental health are linked inexorably.

Veterinary medicine is a profession that is stressful, as animals’ lives depend on their doctors’ skills, and clients are demanding. When the physical nature of equine practice, often in inclement weather, is added in, along with the long hours, emergency coverage, and low pay, it is easy to see why stress can build. Many younger veterinarians have additional financial pressure due to educational indebtedness, and they might struggle with feelings of helplessness or hopelessness about their future.

Here are 10 things that you can do to support your mental health.

1. Value yourself.

Treat yourself with kindness and respect and avoid self-criticism. Never say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a friend. Don’t let your inner voice bully you. Make time for your hobbies and favorite activities. Make your need for daily joy a priority by setting boundaries so your work life doesn’t become all you do.

2. Choose to be positive.

Seeing the good in all situations is a habit that you can adopt, and it will become second nature if you practice it diligently. If you automatically think (or say) something negative as your first reaction to situations, choose to think or say three positive things first before you voice the negative. Soak up the joy in the little moments that occur all day—the warm sun on your face outside the barn on a freezing cold day, the rainbow that follows the torrential storm, or the sunset that you see on your way home from working late. Trying to be optimistic doesn’t mean ignoring the uglier sides of life, it just means focusing on the positive as much as possible. Remember to smile and see the humor in each day. Research shows that laughter can boost your immune system, ease pain, relax your body and reduce stress.

3. Surround yourself with good people.

Strong family or social connections are important to feeling like you belong to a tribe. It is common for those who are depressed to become isolated, and those who are isolated to become depressed. Stop this cycle by forcing yourself to spend time with supportive family members and friends. If you are in a new place where you don’t know anyone, seek out activities where you can meet new people, such as a yoga class, painting group or hiking club. Maintain the relationships you have, even if they are with friends living at a distance.

4. Give yourself.

Volunteer your time and energy to help someone else. You’ll feel good about doing something tangible to help someone in need, and it’s a great way to meet new people. You might not have much free time, but if you find yourself sad during holidays or other times when you are not working, fill that time helping someone less fortunate than yourself. Mentor a child, teach an adult to read or volunteer at a handicapped riding program.

5. Take care of your body.

Taking care of yourself physically can improve your mental health. Eat nutritious meals and avoid cigarettes, excessive alcohol and recreational drugs. Instead, treat yourself to a couple of pieces of dark chocolate every few days. The flavonoids, caffeine and theobromine in chocolate are thought to work together to improve alertness and mental skills. Drink plenty of water, aiming for 64 ounces a day. Dehydration can make you feel tired and affect your mood. Exercise helps to significantly decrease depression and anxiety and improve moods. Likewise, getting enough sleep is crucial. Researchers believe that lack of sleep contributes highly to depression. You might want to start your day with a cup of coffee as coffee consumption is linked to lower rates of depression. If you can’t drink coffee because of the caffeine, try green tea.

6. Deal with your stress.

You cannot avoid stress, so take intentional steps to mitigate it. Try to exercise daily, spend time in nature and play with your pet. If something has been bothering you, let it all out on paper by writing in a journal. Writing about upsetting experiences reduces symptoms of depression.

7. Practice gratitude.

Your journal is a great place for listing what you are grateful for on a daily basis. Write a note to someone to let them know why you appreciate them. Written expressions of gratitude are linked to increased happiness. Show love to someone important in your life. Close, quality relationships are key for a happy, healthy life—make these relationships a priority.

8. Practice forgiveness.

Everyone in the world is carrying burdens—you just might not be able to see them. People who forgive have better mental health and report being more satisfied with their lives. No one gets up in the morning and says, “I think I’ll see how many people I can hurt, irritate or anger today.” Everyone has his or her own special pathology. Try not to react; instead, try to understand and respond with kindness.

9. Quiet your mind.

Stay in the present. Try meditating, mindfulness and/or prayer. Research shows that taking just 15-20 minutes a day for quiet reflection can improve your state of mind and outlook on life, reduce anxiety and improve depression.

10. Have something to look forward to.

Break up the monotony of your life by changing your jogging route, planning a road trip, taking a hike in a different park, hanging some new pictures, seeing a good movie or trying a new restaurant. Although our routines make us more efficient and enhance our feelings of security and safety, a little change of pace can perk up a tedious schedule.

Bonus Tip: Get help when you need it.

Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Treatment is effective to help people recover from depression and/or anxiety and lead full, rewarding lives. Depression can be hard to beat without professional help, so don’t hesitate to reach out. Suicide sometimes seems like a solution to a depressed person. If you are in the darkness, seek help to find the light. 

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