Working as a vet is certainly rewarding, but it is also an incredibly demanding and tough career. There’s also no denying that veterinary stress is very real and rife.

Indeed, to make it as a vet you need an unwavering work ethic, excellent interpersonal, and communication skills — not to mention a passion for animals’ health and wellbeing.

That all sounds fine, right? Certainly, there are many positives to being a vet, but there is also a darker side. It’s this shadowy side of the role that is less spoken about and yet this is the side of the veterinary world that needs to see the light.

As custodians of animal health and welfare, vets take their role seriously, as they should. However, the realities of vet life can seriously take their toll.

There are long hours, financial pressures, and the emotional burden that may or may not be linked to having to perform euthanasia. Alongside this, vets are often faced with unrealistic expectations from clients. They are expected to perform miracles when that’s simply not possible.

Vets are also expected to handle human stress, by empathizing with distressed or upset clients. As we all should know, the ability to handle another person’s stress when also dealing with our own emotional turmoil is a lot to ask.

It is all these factors combined that lead to high-stress levels and rising depression and suicide rates amongst vets.

With the reality of veterinary stress out in the open, it’s important that vets recognise the signs of stress and burnout and find ways to cope.

Veterinary stress — know the signs

While it’s true, we all experience stress differently, it’s helpful to be able to spot the early signs of stress —before things get out of control.

Some of the common emotional signs of stress can include:

  • Feeling irritable, aggressive or wound up
  • Feeling anxious
  • Inability to switch off
  • Unable to enjoy things that in the past would have made you happy
  • A general lack of interest in life
  • Lost sense of humour
  • Feelings of loneliness

There are also physical signs of stress. This includes:

  • Shallow breathing or hyperventilating
  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues, such as constipation, diarrhoea and nausea
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Sexual problems
  • Teeth grinding or clenched jaw
  • Low energy or fatigue

Coping with stress

Given the many different emotional and physical issues that can arise as a result of stress, it’s not surprising to hear that prolonged stress can have a detrimental effect on a person’s health.

As such, taking measures to help reduce and manage stress is vital. In fact, taking early action can help reduce the likelihood of additional problems, such as depression, panic attacks, migraine and other chronic disease states.

Reducing stress isn’t always easy, but it’s essential to put practices into place that might help ease some of the tension the body and mind are feeling. Here are a few ways to help combat stress.

Food — eat well

Belinda Reynolds, dietitian and nutritionist, says, “Stress-related eating is incredibly common. Individuals look to unhealthy, sugar-filled foods and alcohol for comfort when they are anxious or down. The hormonal imbalances (e.g. high cortisol) that result from chronic stress can also contribute to issues that impact metabolism, fat storage, and appetite.

“Our over-processed diets are lacking in healthy pre-biotic fibres, plus our over-sanitised, antibiotic-filled environment has contributed to imbalances in our gut flora. Insufficient levels of specific species of good bacteria have been identified in many individuals. It is believed these bacteria influence how our bodies harvest, store and utilise the energy we consume. They can also indirectly influence appetite, metabolism, blood sugar balance, and how we cope with stress.”

As such, to help manage veterinary stress it’s important to eat healthy, well-balanced meals and energy-boosting snacks. Eating well supports good health, which is beneficial for managing stress.

Belinda adds. “Specific herbs and nutrients are available that can assist in the management of stress and stress hormone levels (e.g. magnolia, phellodendron and holy basil).”

Exercise — stay active

Exercise, along with any other physical activity, produces endorphins in the brain— chemicals that help to relieve pain or stress, and boost happiness.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), to get the most benefit from exercise we should aim to do at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. Alternatively, 1.25 hours of vigorous-intensity activity, such as jogging or swimming, or a combination of both moderate and vigorous activity is recommended.

Belinda says, “Resistant exercise will assist in building lean muscle mass that burns more energy even at rest, plus research shows that beneficial changes in brain chemicals occur during exercise that boosts mood and reduces the stress hormones.”

Attitude — be positive

It’s important to try and adopt a positive attitude to coping with veterinary stress. Engaging in the use of alcohol or drugs to help relieve stress is a vicious cycle. Instead of relaxing the body and reducing stress, this behaviour can prolong the body’s stressed state. Ultimately, it will lead to further problems.

It’s important to understand and accept there are some events and situations you can’t control. Learning to practice relaxation techniques can help you deal with these types of scenarios. Yoga, meditation and Tai Chi can be helpful.

Keeping a positive attitude might also encourage you to seek support if you feel it’s necessary.

It’s important to remember that seeking help from a GP or mental health specialist is nothing to be ashamed of. It is simply about finding more positive ways to deal with the stress in your life so that it doesn’t negatively impact your health or those around you.

Have you experienced severe stress in your role as a vet? What coping mechanisms have you found beneficial?

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Liz has a passion for all things cat and dog, and was one of the first in Australia to bring Pet Insurance to the market. She has headed up Petsecure for the past 12 years, and is committed to promoting and supporting the amazing work done by rescue groups around Australia, and those who work to promote a better life for all animals.

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