Burnout and emotional exhaustion can negatively affect veterinarians’ own well-being as well as the quality of care they provide to patients and clients.
Because veterinary professionals deal with illness, death, euthanasia, animal cruelty, ethical dilemmas, and other traumatic events on a regular basis, they are at high risk for compassion fatigue, as they take on the emotional burden of their patients’ suffering (1).
When veterinarians and vet techs feel burned out or emotionally drained, vital skills like problem solving and communication often break down. Luckily, some simple mindfulness techniques may help relieve stress and improve overall well-being.
What is Mindfulness?
“Mindfulness can be defined many different ways, depending on who you ask,” says Katie Reid, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist embedded in the Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Reid says the definition she uses is “paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment.”
In a nutshell, mindfulness is about being present. Why is a focus on the present important? According to an article published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal, people commonly default to reliving their past or anticipating their future, instead of paying attention to the present (2). This can lead to feelings of regret, worry, and anxiety. Mindfulness techniques that ground veterinary professionals in the present can be of great benefit, especially those who are feeling excessive stress or experiencing burnout.
“When you’re on the floor and actively caring for multiple clients and patients, your attention is bound to be directed in multiple places,” says Kate Crumley, DVM, medical team coach for Blue Heron Consulting and owner of Heartwood Animal Hospital in Youngsville, North Carolina. “However, you can only do your personal best when you focus on one task at a time.”
More than just a buzzword, mindfulness has been studied extensively. Research on mindfulness techniques has revealed the many benefits of this seemingly simple idea.
“The research supporting the benefits of mindfulness is abundant,” Reid says. “The literature suggests that regular mindfulness practice has been shown to reduce stress, improve concentration and memory, help manage symptoms of anxiety and depression, increase immunity and pain tolerance, increase empathy and compassion toward self and others, and increase gray matter in the brain.” (3, 4, 5)
6 Mindfulness Techniques for Veterinarians and Vet Techs
Mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways. The best part about mindfulness is it’s a very flexible program, making it easy to fit in the time to practice one or more techniques at work or at home.
“Techniques can include things such as intentional breathing exercises, yoga, and even observing the present moment with your five senses,” Reid says. “Simply stepping out of the room and taking 30 to 60 seconds to do some mindful breathing or a grounding technique can help reduce the intensity of emotions and help you focus on the present.”
To get you started, Reid shares a few simple techniques that can be done at work and at home.
1. Reflective listening
In your own words, reflect back what you hear the other person say, taking a few seconds to pause before speaking. “This could help a difficult client feel heard during a tense or upsetting moment,” Reid says. Reflective listening can also help you be more mindful about what you truly want to communicate to the client, whether it’s breaching the subject of palliative care and euthanasia, conveying the risks of pet obesity, or stressing the importance of year-round, broad-spectrum parasite protection.
2. Mindful breathing
Simply taking a few deep, mindful breaths can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps calm down your physiological stress response.
3. Grounding techniques
“Grounding” refers to bringing your focus back to the present. “Take four deep breaths and identify four things you can see in your environment,” Reid says. “Take four more deep breaths and identify four things you can hear. Finally, take four deep breaths and identify four things you can touch or feel on your body, for example, your feet on the floor or your back on the chair.”
4. Guided meditation
Reid recommends practicing a 5- to 10-minute guided meditation to transition from work to home, especially after very long or very stressful days. “This practice can help veterinary professionals leave their work day in the past and refocus their minds and attention on their home lives,” she says. Look for guided meditation apps like Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer, or Smiling Mind, or search YouTube for “guided meditation.”
Yoga is all about the art of being present. With its deep breathing, stretching, and meditation, practicing yoga on days off is a great way to decompress and work on mindfulness.
6. Mindful gratitude
Another simple way to practice mindfulness in the veterinary hospital setting is to mindfully recognize the little things your coworkers do every day and express gratitude to your team.
“Using the TY4 method of always saying, ‘Thank you for (something specific)’ instead of a blanket, ‘thank you,’ is much more meaningful to people,” Crumley says. “It only takes a little conscious effort to let your coworkers know you sincerely appreciate them. When you show appreciation, you feel good, too. That’s self-care at its finest. When you feel good, you’re less likely to burn out.”
Practice Mindfulness, Reap the Rewards
Regularly practicing mindfulness techniques can reduce stress and lead to an overall feeling of balance. It’s easy to incorporate techniques like mindful breathing and reflective listening every day. For instance, you might choose to take a short break midday for some mindful breathing.
“Taking as little as 5 minutes to step outside the building is beneficial,” Crumley says. “Exiting the building has a lot of benefits, but especially because it removes you from all but the most urgent interruptions.”
Keep in mind, you don’t have to use all of the above techniques—it’s about trying them and seeing which ones are most effective and practical for you.
Working in the veterinary field is both rewarding and challenging. It might seem like a small thing, but practicing mindfulness can go a long way toward lowering stress levels and even avoiding burnout.
“Those in helping professions, including veterinary medicine, often put themselves last,” Reid says. “Taking care of oneself, especially in times of stress, is one of the primary ways veterinary professionals can be better for their clients and patients.”
- Work and compassion fatigue. American Veterinary Medical Association. Retrieved from https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing/work-and-compassion-fatigue
- Noonan S. Mindfulness-based stress reduction. Can Vet J. 2014;55(2):134‐135.
- Correia H, Smith A, Murray S, et al. The Impact of a Brief Embedded Mindfulness-Based Program for Veterinary Students. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education. 2017;44:125-133. 10.3138/jvme.0116-026R.
- Chiesa A, Serretti A. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Stress Management in Healthy People: A Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2009;15:593-600. 10.1089/acm.2008.0495.
- Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011;191(1):36‐43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
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