Between COVID, increased stress, and the holidays, what can we do to help each other?

COVID vaccines are on the way, but their impact on the pandemic is likely still many months away—and with coronavirus cases and hospitalizations spiking, most experts say we’re in for a long winter. On top of that, we still have to get through the holidays, a time when many veterinary professionals can feel isolated and sad under the best of circumstances.

NEWStat asked Mary Beth Spitznagel, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, for advice on how hospital staff can help each other get through the next few weeks.

“Focus on the here and now, on what is within your control,” Spitznagel says. She concedes that veterinary medicine is known for long hours and a high number of daily occupational stressors, but says it’s important to keep those in perspective: “Notice what’s going on in your ‘inner world,’ and make space for the feelings and thoughts that you’re having.” Notice them, but try to “unhook” from them and get a little distance, “rather than letting them take over.”

But how do you do that? Spitznagel says to keep in mind that you’re more than a product of your thoughts and feelings: when those thoughts and feelings start to overwhelm you, think about who you really are and what your values are—or, to put it another way, who do you want to be? What’s important to you?

Then consider the ways, here and now, that you can live out those values, both at home and in the hospital. “Challenge yourself each day to identify something that’s important to you, and choose behaviors that are consistent with what you value most.” Spitznagel concedes that no one can do this all day, every day, but you don’t have to: “Just find moments to act with intention.”

For example, she says, it’s likely one of your values is compassion for the animals you treat. “If so, try taking a few moments to turn off your autopilot, focus on one animal, really notice what you’re doing to help that animal, and let yourself feel good about it.”

Or maybe you value connection. If so, “Can you make eye contact with your colleague while they’re speaking to you, or turn off your autopilot and listen fully to a client as they tell you their concerns?”

She suggests Identifying resources—colleagues, friends, family members—and stay connected with them: “Every day, make an effort to connect—really connect—with someone.”

Elizabeth Strand, PhD, LCSW, founding director of Veterinary Social Work and a clinical associate professor at the University of Tennessee Colleges of Social Work and Veterinary Medicine, also spoke to the value of connection during the holidays.

Strand says the holidays are a time when emotions—both positive and negative—can run high, even when we’re not in a pandemic. “It’s important to stay connected during the holidays,” she adds.

However, she cautions that the quality of the connection is important and says there are ways to elevate it. One way is by establishing what she calls “buddyhood” relationships with colleagues who’ve agreed to make sure each buddy is engaging in self-care and maintaining mental health and wellbeing through the holidays. “If there’s someone you’re a little worried about, reach out to them to offer to be their buddy.” Be persistent, she adds, and follow through. Goal setting and accountability can help: “It’s good to make dates to meet and establish time boundaries for the meetings.

Strand says it’s important to try to connect with people who are going through the same things you are, like your coworkers. “Sometimes . . . just sharing the current highs and lows of the holiday season with someone who gets it can be immensely helpful.”

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