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Talking techniques to cope with stress

20 Feb 2019

THE 2017 VETERINARY EDUCATION FOR TOMORROW (VET) Festival celebrated a record turnout this year, opening its gates to over 1,400 delegates. The 36 speakers, chosen by Professor Noel Fitzpatrick, educated and enthused delegates in the themed tents for two days at Loseley Park, Guildford. On Friday, the CPD tents were full to the brim with delegates all through the day, not just by people seeking refuge during the morning’s torrential rain. Wellness was the theme for this third event and a whole stream was dedicated to the topic. Dr. Laura Woodward, a veterinary surgeon, and therapeutic counselor attracted a large crowd to her talks on mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and coping with stress in the veterinary workplace. Dr. Woodward opened by explaining the need for counseling in the veterinary profession – a profession where the suicide rate is four times that of the general public, and a high percentage of individuals often seriously consider quitting for good.


Dr. Woodward reiterated that we need to get rid of the “blame culture” and work more as a team; we need to be more open about the issues we face, and more support must be made available to veterinary professionals. She highlighted the benefits of mindfulness, a stress-reducing exercise described by its father, Jon Kabat- Zinn, as “paying attention on purpose in the present moment, as if your life depends on it”. Mindfulness can be practiced in several different ways to help you work more efficiently and save time in the long term. The first means is through formal meditation; for example, meditating for an hour, movement meditations (like yoga), or group exchanges. Dr. Woodward is more of an advocate for informal meditation. “Any activity can be mindful if you focus on it in a mindful way,” she said. Suggestions included playing mindful tennis, doing mindful poem-reading, or even trying your hand at mindful tooth-brushing.
The point is that you take a few minutes out of your day to remove all work distractions and focus wholly on the activity at hand. These shorter, simpler mindfulness exercises are more realistic for people in the veterinary profession; they can be performed in just a few minutes, or even achieved while undertaking necessary tasks like washing and cleaning. Mindfulness takes practice and staying focused even for five minutes is harder than you might think;
Dr. Woodward suggests starting with shorter periods – a minute or two – and working your way up to longer, more regular mindful practice. 

Emotional intelligence

Being emotionally intelligent in the workplace can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety on a personal level as well as helping to maintain a relaxed work environment for those around you. Dr. Woodward quoted the pioneering endocrinologist Hans Selye:
“It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.” She described five key components to emotional intelligence:

  1. Self-awareness – being aware of how you feel in a particular moment and knowing how you would feel in different situations; knowing your strengths and your limitations.
  2. Self-regulation – controlling your emotions and not allowing yourself to be reactionary.
  3. Motivation – thinking about what you can achieve from a situation and how you can achieve it.
  4. Empathy – seeing things from another person’s perspective.
  5. Social skills – tolerating your own weaknesses and those of other people; being compassionate, resilient, and actively listening to others. 

CBT to cope 

Dr. Woodward’s final talk focused on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – another method to cope with stress in the workplace. This technique is about changing the way you view a situation so you can change the way you feel about it and react to it. CBT isn’t about suppressing your feelings, Dr. Woodward says, but is about stopping you from “awfulizing” them. Using CBT should help a person to put things in proportion; it can be used to rationalize anxieties and work to overcome them. There are several steps to
overcoming anxiety (like a fear of failure in performing a certain surgical procedure). Firstly, Dr. Woodward recommends disputing the irrational belief by “doing your homework” – in other words, looking to see how likely it really is that the bad situation
you’re envisaging is going to be the outcome. It is also suggested that you change your language to put a positive spin on your thoughts (think “I will do it, but I’ll do it with a more experienced surgeon on call in case of any problems”). Roleplay, Dr. Woodward says, is a great exercise for reducing anxiety; take yourself to a quiet place and work through the whole situation, from start
to finish, in your head. Think about what you would do if the worse were to happen and make sure that when you enter the real situation, you have everything to hand to deal with it efficiently.
Perform shame-attacking exercises – know that you are not a terrible person and it’s OK to be cautious; the very fact that you’re thinking about these CBT methods means that you are being proactive and trying to tackle the issue. Again, think about your motivation – why do you want to overcome the anxiety? What benefits will you get from being able to perform that procedure confidently? Try to desensitize yourself to the situation – don’t just do it once, keep agreeing to do the activity you are anxious about, perhaps with somebody on hand to help. Skills training and assertiveness training can also be beneficial. Dr. Woodward recommends signing up to some relevant CPD to help you better understand the situation and strengthen your knowledge. Once you
have successfully come through the situation, think that you can deal with it and you have overcome the anxieties. The more you practice these exercises, the more efficient you will be at tackling your ever-growing to-do list. Paradoxically, taking the time to
not think about work will help you to function more efficiently and work through the list more swiftly, leading ultimately to a less stressful workday and a happier workplace.