Resilience in a Vet Practice

Resilience in a Vet practice: how to bounce back

There is a lot of rhetoric about life, work and society getting back to ‘normal’ post the Covid-19 Lockdown.  However, resilient people don’t refer to going back to how things used to be.  As a very wise teacher and colleague of mine says, at this current point in time – where all of our old systems are breaking down  – we either ‘change or break’.  We break when we get stuck repeatedly thinking or talking about the traumas, struggles, fears and the pain they have caused us. We can use this time instead to change: to learn how to let go.

This blog will provide a variety of strategies to develop resilience in a Vet practice.  

Train the Mind

We don’t realise it, but we have a choice at this point: at the point of our greatest struggle.  We can choose to change by ‘letting go’ of these thoughts, memories, hurt, pain, fears, and ‘move on’.  I might make this sound easy, but I have to admit it is one of the toughest – and yet most valuable – lessons I’ve learned. 

Most of us don’t know how to let go of our thoughts, fears, hurts.  Instead, we tend to ruminate on them, or even share them with others.  Whilst there is most definitely a place to talk – to get things off our chest, to ‘empty our suitcases of thoughts, fears, hurts’ – unfortunately we don’t.  Once we’ve shared our story, we tend to pack it all back up in our suitcase, and off we go, only to feel even more weighed down by them.  My colleague/meditation teacher often tells us “we carry far more in our minds than we could ever possibly carry in our arms”.  And we wonder why we feel so stressed, depressed or anxious!  The old adage “a problem shared is a problem halved” is only true if once we’ve shared the problem we let it go from our minds. 

A girl sits on the lake shore and meditates

Unfortunately, this is where the real struggle occurs: few of us really know how to do this.  Instead we distract ourselves with games, activities. Or we keep ourselves busy at work or socially.  We might work harder, in the vain hope that we can disprove the thoughts.  Or we drink too much to push the thoughts away.  Or we berate ourselves, yelling “shut-up” to these myriad of thoughts.  I know all of these fruitless strategies because I tried most of them in the past.  None of them work.  We can never stop a thought or a fear.  We can only learn how to let go of our attachment to them. 

Think about it: holding onto past traumas defines our present and our future.  Letting go is about making a choice to draw a line in the sand, and to train your mind.  I encourage everyone to practice Mindfulness to overcome the unhelpful habits of mind that ruminate on hurts, words, mistakes, longings. I have my own daily mindfulness practice which I have been doing for 22 years and will continue all my days. I consider it is the most important thing I do.  I also set Mindfulness homework strategies for all my clients, and even run weekly Mindfulness/Training the Mind workshops for my clients to help them to achieve this. There are also many good sources and apps for starting this process.  I recommend you start to practice it rather than read about it.  It’s only through mindfully stepping back from a thought that you successfully train the mind.  Reading about it will only appease your intellect.  Unfortunately, intellectualising will increase your despair as the solution is always just beyond your grasp. An outstanding book (The Way of the Carrot)  describes a simple yet powerful process on how to train the mind.  Click on this link if you’re wanting to order a copy: https://www.bickleyconsulting.com.au/wellness-mindfullness/the-way-of-the-carrot

Click on this link to access an excellent youtube video by BK Shivani on how to train the mind to respond not react.  This is an excellent entre into the importance of training the mind to develop resilience in a Vet practice.

Try https://www.headspace.com/mindfulness; or Smiling Minds is an Australian not-for-profit organisation that provides a free meditation and mindfulness app for your phones.

Click on this link to access a 10-minute mindfulness meditation video you might like to try.  Or, this link will take you to a 20-minute guided meditation video

The PERMA Model

The is an image of a pie chart depicting the PERMA model- Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments.

Professor Martin Seligman from University of Pennsylvania and the retired President of the American Psychological Association (APA) is recognised as the founder of a relatively new approach to psychology that is helping people build resilience.  He and his peers have developed  the PERMA model to synthesise the research findings on how to achieve resilience, and I share the highlights below. The acronym stands for:

Positive emotions; 

Engagement;

positive Relationships;

Meaning;

Accomplishments.

There is a lot of information available on the web regarding this model, along with some excellent exercises. I will only highlight a couple of great exercises that can easily be incorporated into your work-life to develop resilience in your Vet practice both for yourself and for your colleagues.

For some other exercises, try this website.

Positive emotions

Consciously activating positive emotions helps us lift out of depression, anxiety and stress.  This doesn’t mean burying the mad, bad, sad emotions.  Instead, learn to also appreciate the myriad of little positive experiences surround us every day but don’t notice because we’re stuck in our thoughts.  Some great exercises to help you develop resilience in a vet practice by focusing on positive emotions are listed below.  I use them a lot with clients.  There are many great websites describing each of these.  I’ve picked out a few for you:

This exercise is designed to train you to consciously and deliberately shift your focus of attention away from those well-worn neural pathways which focus on what’s wrong/missing/not good enough etc to noticing what good things you experienced today, even in the midst of difficulty.

Note that this is NOT an exercise in looking for what you’ve accomplished, nor why you’ve been useful or effective.  It is designed purely to notice and reflect on what you experienced today. 

The Exercise

At the end of each day, after dinner and before going to sleep, write down three things that went well during the day.  Do this every night for a minimum of a week.  It’s also great to incorporate this into your ongoing daily routine.  The three things you list can be relatively small in importance (“My husband picked up my favourite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”) or relatively large in importance (“ My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).  After each positive event on your list answer in your own words the question “What was good about this thing? How did it touch my heart?  How did it impact me?” 

Take your time to reflect on each experience.  Too often we rush through the good things in life, not even noticing them.  We tend to lock ourselves into being an automaton: simply automatically ‘doing’ life whilst thinking about what we have to do next, or replaying in our mind things that have already passed.  This exercise is designed to encourage you to ‘be’ with each experience.

How to Incorporate this Exercise into Worklife to Develop Resilience in a Vet Practice

Once you’re used to undertaking the daily exercise of keeping a personal daily diary of 3 Good Things, I encourage teams to start each staff meeting by doing a quick whip-round, asking everyone to share 1 good thing they’ve experienced since the last meeting.  Initially your staff members might roll their eyes or wonder what you’ve been smoking.  But, with time, they get into it because it instantly changes the mood of meetings. It activates the pre-frontal cortex of our brain which is the part of the brain responsible for creative problem-solving and lateral thinking.  If instead we start staff meetings by going straight to tasks and problems, we activate the part of the brain responsible for survival and fear-based thinking (amygdala).  No creative solutions ever come from this part of the brain.  Nor do teams pull together collaboratively when people are locked into fear-based thinking.

If you’re into nice stationery, then you might like the Gratitude Journal by Kiki-k which is a variant of the 3 Good Things exercise. 

  • Random Acts of Kindness.  If you want to be happy, think about doing something for someone else (not for the recognition). Each day think about a tiny thing you can do for someone else.  Click on this great article in the journal Psychology Today on the purpose of Random Acts of Kindness.  How can you incorporate this into work to help you and colleagues develop resilience in a Vet Practice?

Enhance Engagement by using your VIA Character Strengths

The research is finding that we can access greater sense of satisfaction with ourselves, others, our work and the world in general by consciously using our inner or ‘character’ strengths.  The end result is an increase in motivation and passion for life.  Character Strengths are trait-like capacities for thinking, feeling and behaving.  A free website will allow you to identify your Character Strengths. Upon completion of the short questionnaire called Values in Action, or VIA, you’re unlikely to be surprised by what shows up as your top strengths. The big issue is that most people don’t utilise these strengths at work. By consciously activating them at work, you enhance your resilience in a Vet practice

The Exercise

  1. Access the free VIA Strengths Questionnaire.  Log on to Authentic Happiness, click on Questionnaires, and then at the bottom of this list you will find ‘VIA Signature Strengths’. Click on this.
  2. Before completing the questionnaire, you will be asked to REGISTER. Complete the form and click the register button. You will be required to nominate a password and this along with your user-name (which is your email address) will allow you to continue to access your results or do other tests on the site. All of the tests you see listed are for research purposes only; you will not be contacted as a result of your registration for purposes other than ongoing research.
  3. Complete the Via Signature Strengths Test; it will take about 20-35 minutes to complete the 240 questions. Once completed you will be asked if you want the top 5 Signature Strengths or all 24. Choose all 24 and print the full list.
  4. Look at your top 5-7 strengths. Do you recognise them? For those you do, think about times in both your personal and working life when you use them.
  5. Take time to reflect on what each of your top 5 strengths means to you: define each of them in your own words. Take ownership of each of them. Write a description of what it looks like in your life, be it at work and at play. What would you be doing, feeling, hearing if you were utilizing each of your top 5 signature strengths?
  6. Now, reflect on how each of these strengths could be activated at your Vet practice.  How would you be thinking, feeling and behaving towards colleagues and clients?
  7. And also, how would you think, feel and behave if one of your strengths is thwarted?  How could you utilise another of your strengths to help you through this difficult situation?

Meaning & Purpose

This is it – the biggest piece of the pie!  A large amount of research has consistently found that the one thing we can do to increase our resilience in a Vet practice is to engage in activities where we make a contribution to something beyond ourselves.  This doesn’t have to be religious or spiritual.  You might choose to make a contribution to a sporting club; a musical group; your local community centre.

If you’re spiritual or religious, reconnect with these beliefs to help you find meaning.  I keep reminding myself how precious life is.  As a Vet, I urge you to marvel at the enormous diversity of animals, plants and a myriad of other creatures that inhabit this ‘pale blue dot’. Marvel at the gift you have to make a difference in your patients’ and your clients’ lives, even if they don’t appreciate it.  We have got to give it to ourselves. 

Finally, I encourage you to click on this really wonderful youtube video on how to rise above the difficult clients and situations you encounter in Vet practices: BK Shivani on ‘Love yourself when people disrespect you’

Check out part 1 of this series ‘Challenges in Vet Practice’.

Naomi Bickley, Clinical Psychologist

BSC(hons Psych), MClin Psych, MAPS, MICP

Being the Camp Psychologist for Murdoch University’s Veterinary School’s Veterinary Professional Life (VPL) Camp since 2009, Naomi has run 12 three-day residential workshops with over 1,200 second-year Vet students, and many academic staff and volunteer support staff comprising Veterinarians, Vet nurses and allied Vet staff.  She has run a number of workshops and given presentations for Veterinary Graduates in Practice; Veterinary Mentors; and the AVA.  Several years ago the Veterinary Surgeons’ Board appointed her “Psychologist of choice” to whom to refer Vets and Vet nurses who are needing support.

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