When I was in private practice, euthanasia was definitely the hardest part of my job. Give me anal glands, rabbit abscesses, even a month’s worth of dental scaling and polishing – anything was preferable to euthanising an animal. The task affected me emotionally and I remember crying as I drove home, especially when my daily euthanasia count started to creep over three or four.
Stress comes in many forms, and can have a detrimental effect on our health and ability to perform our work as vet rehab therapists. The experience of stress can be increased by multiple factors, many of which we are exposed to as Vetrehabbers.
I remember at vet school being told never to show weakness by crying in front of a client. So I blocked all the emotions as well as I could. At the time I could not really have told you the precise reason for my tears. I just knew I felt sad. But 16 years later I can now look back and realise that I was upset for a number of reasons.
The pain of loss
I empathised with the owner, feeling their pain and loss. In the veterinary field we build strong relationships with our clients, connecting with them over a shared love of animals. The support we give them is appreciated, and this deepens our bonds. The sadness I felt was for them. In addition, I felt I had let the patient down. I was unable to heal, or improve that pet’s quality of life, to the extent that it could no longer continue to exist. And lastly I had let myself down. I was not the vet I had studied to be; I should be healing and saving animals, not putting them down. These were my unacknowledged thoughts, which of course were unrealistic. We cannot save them all; I know this now, and I knew it intellectually then – but had not quite accepted it. The result was a deep feeling of sadness, which the body reads as stress.
The stress of caring
In veterinary rehabilitation our work so often runs our lives. How many of you get so attached to your patients that you cannot stop thinking about them, even when you are at home? How many of you have taken patients home to care for them because their owners could not?
On a day-to-day basis we become immersed in the lives of our patients and clients, and this in the long term starts to take its toll on us, causing emotional stress. Our patients’ conditions are often severe, with symptoms such as pain and paralysis. They are part of a family, and clients will often do whatever they can to help their ‘fur child’. Owners may have exhausted all other medical and surgical options and we might be their last chance of a miracle. Rehabilitation therapists are helpers by nature. Often when others have given up we will go that extra mile to see if we can make a difference. This goal we set ourselves and this burden we willingly take on often creates a life of emotional and physical stress.
Even without the extra emotional component that we willingly enter into, stress is part and parcel of a therapist’s life. It comes from clients, day-to-day activities, time constraints, financial constraints, demanding workloads, colleagues and patients who don’t respond. As caregivers and healers we need to protect ourselves from excessive stress. A stressed veterinary rehabilitation therapist is unable to treat patients optimally; stress, if not addressed, will interfere with our ability to heal and think clearly. It is essential to find coping mechanisms that adequately manage our daily stresses and life in general.
The stress of inexperience
Simply being young and new to the profession is a stress in itself. In all professions, whether medical, veterinary or any other, “inexperienced” is an uncomfortable state in which to be. Time is the only thing that makes it better. Studies have shown that the less experienced a therapist is, the more stress he or she experiences and must find ways to deal with (Williams, 2002).
One way to address stress borne of inexperience is to learn as much as you can. Keep up to date with knowledge and find supports from colleagues in the field. Knowledge imparts confidence; always be willing to learn.
It goes without saying that we have an emotionally demanding job. The majority of us are in this job because of our love and care for animals, which tends to increase our commitment and our levels of stress.
Top tips for minimizing stress in the Vet Rehab environment
- Start saying “NO”. This is something I have had to learn. You cannot please everyone and often saying yes is to our own detriment. Learn to say no when you need to.
- Make time for yourself every day. I used to agree to treat patients throughout the day so that I didn’t even have time to eat lunch. Take 20 minutes each day to have a cup of tea, eat your lunch or go for a walk. Leave your phone, Facebook, Twitter, etc. and clear your mind. It does wonders for flagging energy later in the day.
- It’s OK not to be perfect. It’s not a bad thing to strive for perfection but some of us can be over critical of ourselves. Trust that you are doing your best and let that be good enough.
- Set boundaries. We need to set boundaries with clients and colleagues with regards to time. Running over time in consultations puts unnecessary stress on you throughout the day. Be firm and consistent, and these boundaries will be respected.
- Recognise your stressors. If you know that running late stresses you out, recognise this and put systems in place to minimise it. Every time you feel stressed, ask yourself. “What just happened? What is the cause of this feeling I’m experiencing right now?” This kind of emotional awareness can go a long way to reducing our stress levels.
- Keep up to date with continued professional development. Minimise professional stress by learning something new every day. Listen to your experienced colleagues and accept their advice and wisdom. A sound body of knowledge reduces work-related stress.
- It’s OK to cry. Don’t hold your emotions in every time. It’s OK to be sad and it’s OK to share such feelings with your clients and colleagues, where appropriate.
- Plan a holiday. Can you remember the last time you had a holiday? If not, it’s time to plan one, even if it’s just a long weekend. Try to find a place with no cellphone reception and really escape. You will be surprised to find that everyone copes just fine without you.
Although stress can be a killer, it is also a necessary and at times invigorating part of our day. There is a stress that motivates and a stress that exhausts. Once you manage your own responses, you may find that a certain level of high activity and challenge is what motivates you, rather than stresses you.
Get to know the areas where you react badly; acknowledge these and try to do something about your responses. We all have weak areas, but once recognised, these can be dealt with, and our stress reduced. The result is always greater pleasure in our work, a boost in energy and happier relationships.
And who wouldn’t want that?
At the Vet Rehab Summit 2022, we will pursue excellence above perfection, and growth above striving together with every Vetrehabber in our community.
Join us for this Online Conference and #levelup.