Pandemic self-care for veterinary teams

2020-3-26 iStock-1209758060 Pandemic self-care - blog.jpg

Living through a pandemic is really, really exhausting. The mental health risks are real. That means radical, relentless self-care is more important than ever, so we asked a therapist to help think through and potentially reframe concerns veterinary teams likely feel as the days and weeks living with the threat of COVID-19 wear on.

Nicole Vykoukal, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and yoga teacher in Austin, Texas. In her private psychotherapy practice, she specializes in companion animal loss and grief counseling, the human-animal bond, and integrating animals with trauma-informed mind-body-spirit techniques for deep healing and renewal. 

She explains, “During this time of collective uncertainty and fear, there is added stress and pressure on animal healthcare workers. Veterinarians are providing critical medical care and risking their own (and their family’s) health and safety while trying to manage their own fear responses. This takes a ton of energy! Long shifts, collective stress, high expectations, sacrifice, and pressure placed on veterinary healthcare workers, who are not getting the same levels of protection from the virus as non-healthcare workers, can understandably lead to resentment, a sense of lack of control, and compassion fatigue.”

Below, Vykoukal discusses the following concerns as she would during a therapy session with a client.

Concern: Continuing to work when so many others are staying home

During this time when there are different expectations and added pressure on veterinarians and animal healthcare professionals, I would suggest taking a moment to reconnect with the inspiration, sense of purpose, and meaning that drew you to the animal healthcare field in the first place. . . . In addition to recognizing these difficult aspects of the job, prioritize reflecting on moments of success and gratitude.

Concern: Likely working with fewer people, so everyone is doing more

To maximize energy levels and gain mental clarity, focus on regulating your nervous system by practicing deep diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing while you are at work.

  1. Inhale through your nose for four seconds as your belly expands.
  2. Hold your breath for four seconds.
  3. Exhale through your mouth for four seconds.
  4. Hold your breath for four seconds.
  5. Repeat for a few minutes or until you feel more refocused and relaxed.

If you start to feel dizzy, stop the exercise and start breathing normally.

Also, practice compassion. First, try to think and feel compassionately toward yourself. Then, extend this empathy and compassion toward others.

Recent research has shown that practicing compassion toward ourselves and empathy toward others is extremely helpful to our wellbeing.

Concern: Feeling scared of picking up the virus, even with the precautions practices are taking

This is a scary time with a lot of unknowns that can create a sense of loss of control, hopelessness, irritability, and anxiety. Are there boundaries or extra precautions that could be taken to prevent you from picking up the virus, but you are appeasing others by not speaking up? If so, consider advocating for yourself and asking for these extra precautions.

If all precautions within your control have been taken, ask yourself what non–self destructive actions you can take while you're working that will help you regulate your nervous system and discharge stress and fear. This could include:

  • Quick bouts of movement such as stretching or jogging in place
  • Laughing with a trusted coworker
  • Letting out a long sigh
  • Taking time for stillness and rest
  • Humming a tune
  • Allowing yourself to make any noise that seems key in releasing tension

These seemingly small acts can regulate your nervous system throughout the day and make a huge impact on lowering your overall stress and anxiety levels.

Concern: Trying to work without being too close together physically

Generally speaking, medical treatments for animals require at least two people. During a time when distancing yourself from others may literally save your life, there is huge sacrifice involved in continuing to provide care and treatment to animals. Inner conflict regarding these sacrifices may create restlessness, uneasiness, irritability, and anxiety.

  • Honor yourself by practicing compassion and grace with yourself as you are rapidly adapting procedures to increase safety.
  • Rely on your team for mutual support.
  • Brainstorm ways in which you can keep each other safe.
  • Ask everyone on the team to practice nervous system regulating techniques to increase mental clarity, emotional regulation, and decisionmaking abilities.

Concern: Still having to handle critical/emergency and euthanasia cases

Veterinarians are known to be high achievers. During this health crisis, there is even more pressure on veterinarians who are required to adapt to this everchanging situation while still having to handle critical, emergency, and euthanasia cases.

Added pressure and stress could make veterinarians even more susceptible to internalizing unrealistic expectations of themselves and increase self-criticism.

Practice empathy and compassion for yourself, your colleagues, and clients. Try putting yourself in your clients’ shoes. Take a few extra moments to compassionately explain to clients the changes in procedures. This helps clients have empathy for you and the situation.

Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can during an unprecedented situation. Connect with trusted mentors and colleagues for support and ideas. Know that during this time, people are more stressed, more irritable, and experiencing a plethora of difficult emotions. Know that you are not alone in this.

Concern: How to express feelings in a healthy way

When difficult emotions arise and/or you feel overwhelmed, try not to act or speak right away. Instead, stop and take a deep breath.

Next, compassionately:

  • Identify any sensations you are feeling in your body.
  • Identify any emotions associated with these sensations.
  • Try not to panic or judge yourself in regard to experiencing difficult emotions.
  • Know that emotions are normal and not our enemy.
  • Try to identify the underlying issue or thought. For example, I don't feel safe, I am interpreting this moment as disrespect, and so on.

Once you have identified and honored the emotions and thoughts within yourself, you will likely feel more centered and able to have a conversation with others about the difficult emotions that arose.

Photo credit: © iStock/AaronAmat