Mindfulness in vet med and why it’s not just woo
Many veterinary professionals aren’t enthusiastic about anything that smacks of New Age “woo,” from the theoretical healing power of crystals to the more established power of meditation to calm.
Some staff are even suspicious of the much-vaunted “mindfulness.”
And that’s not really surprising. Veterinary practitioners studied a discipline thoroughly grounded in medical science—logical, evidence-based, and results-oriented.
But that right there is the key to understanding the role of mindfulness in vet med—it is rooted in science.
“That’s the way in,” says Sonja Olson, DVM, a full-time wellness educator with the BluePearl Veterinary Partners’ health and well-being team, where she teaches BluePearl associates and regional social workers about wellness topics. She’s also certified as a mental health First Aid instructor and a compassion fatigue educator with Green Cross Academy of Traumatology's Figley Institute, and author of Creating Well-being and Building Resilience in the Veterinary Profession: A Call to Life (CDC Press, February 2022).
There are a lot of misconceptions about what mindfulness means, Olson told NEWStat. “It’s not any particular way of being or doing,” she explains. Instead, Olson defines mindfulness as a mindset. It’s the practice, she says, of “meeting the current moment without judgment.”
“It’s about choosing and taking control of your destiny, of choosing how you show up with power and intention,” Olson explains.
Perhaps the most well-known path to mindfulness is through meditation. If that term makes you think of hippie gurus, love beads, and sitting for hours in a lotus position while endlessly chanting “Om,” you might be in for a pleasant surprise.
Many different practices, Olson says, constitute meditation. “Meditation is choosing a way into a state that allows you to calm your nervous system,” Olson explains. “It’s about finding a way of slowing down and taking stock.”
Finding the right meditation practice for you is a matter of trial and error, according to Olsen—not everything works for everyone. Some people, for example, practice yoga, or go for a walk outdoors. Olson calls this “mindful movement,” and says it’s particularly beneficial for those who have trouble sitting still.
Even better, you don’t have to meditate for long to get its benefits. “Research has shown that eight minutes is the sweet spot,” Olson says.
And you can even work your way up to that. Olson recommends starting with one minute, then three, then five. She notes that it takes about 90 days to learn a new habit, and mindfulness is no exception. Because mindfulness is a habit.
“Give yourself permission to find two to three minutes once or twice a week,” she says. That could be intentional quiet time with your pets or your kids. It could be working out on your own to your favorite podcast.
Olson says the point is to do this intentionally—and to not worry if you find yourself getting distracted by other thoughts, maybe of work or chores undone or an errand you need to run: “Silence can be an uncomfortable space, and your monkey mind will want to fill it with chatter,” Olson says. “That’s absolutely human.”
It may even be beneficial. Olson says meditation doesn’t mean that everything needs to get quiet and still. There can be innate wisdom in those chattering thoughts, which, Olson says, are part of an “amazing operating system called human.” Meditation can help you optimize that operating system by giving you space for calm.
So what can you do to step out of the moment and take stock? If you’re at work, step outside and sniff the breeze. Take a lap around the hospital. Sit and observe a tree – or any kind of greenery. Olson calls getting out in nature getting your dose of Vitamin N. It’s an especially good way to quiet your mind.
If you’re simply too busy during your shift to take a break, wait until after work. Listen to your favorite podcast on the drive home. Take a few minutes to just sit in your car in your driveway to give yourself a chance to transition from your work life to your home life. Breathe.
You can also find ways to fit mindfulness more naturally into your workday. “I was a practicing ER clinician for two decades,” Olson says. “That’s a long time to do that kind of shift work.” To cope, Olson practiced both yoga and mindful meditation. “Sometimes it’s a matter of just taking a moment to hold still, sitting at the keyboard laying my hands in my lap for 90 seconds,” she points out.
Of course, even the most diligent mindfulness practices might not compensate for those moments when everything catches up with you and you feel overwhelmed. Olson speaks to this by teaching her BluePearl associates a 4-step technique called STOP:
- S is for Stop. Stop what you’re doing, pause.
- T is for Take. Take at least three really full breaths.
- is for Observe. Observe what’s going on around you and inside you. Use your sense of sight and sound to ground yourself and slow down by widening your field of perception.
- P is for Proceed. Continue with what you were doing, but hopefully now with a bit more awareness.
“The goal is moving forward without as much reactivity,” Olson says. “Now you’re responding to situations based on your sense of who you want to be.”
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