Strategies for Wellbeing
Taking Practical Steps for Yourself
by Carol Hurst, LVT, CVPM, CCFP
THE SUBJECTS OF BURNOUT AND COMPASSION FATIGUE are more well known now in our industry than ever. But what if we flipped the script? Instead of discussing the problem, what if we start at the foundation first by asking, what can make us more resilient?
While we can’t prevent all stressors in veterinary medicine, there are many steps that can be taken to ensure we are as resilient as possible. Resilience is like any muscle—it can become stronger the more we work on it. Here are the four pillars of building resilience— good nutrition, adequate sleep, routine physical activity, and active relaxation—along with practical resources and strategies for becoming stronger in each area.
Veterinary technicians face a unique set of challenges: difficult clients, stressed out animals, long hours, low pay, underutilization . . . the list goes on. Hopefully these tips can help to level the playing field in the fight against burnout and compassion fatigue and help you take steps to be healthier and more resilient.
Nutrition can be a sticky subject as there are a lot of opinions about what it means. This isn’t meant as a debate or to advocate for one “diet” over another. These tips merely reinforce known principles and offer ideas to help achieve a healthier lifestyle. Remember when going over these principles that no singular day should be judged too harshly, as the purpose of building healthier choices is what that routine looks like over time. Small changes can add up to large benefits.
- Limit “added sugars”: Added sugars (which are any sugars that don’t naturally occur in a food source) should add up to less than 10% of total daily calories. Sugar is in everything! Learn to read labels and research what names sugar can go by, such as sucrose and dextrose.
- Reduce sodium intake: Sodium should be limited to less than 2,300 mg daily (for adults and children 14 years and older), but most Americans consume 50% more than that. Processed foods are a big culprit; a lot of convenience foods such as freezer meals and chips that make life easier are loaded with sodium to boost flavor and elongate shelf life. This doesn’t mean you can never eat those foods, it just means being aware of what—and how much— you consume.
- Limit alcohol consumption: While the occasional drink is acceptable, try to limit alcohol to special occasions and avoid drinking daily. Aside from the risk of developing unhealthy habits or even addiction, alcohol contains “empty” calories with no nutritional benefit. Drinking alcohol can also negatively affect your sleep.
- Reduce snacking and try alternatives: What is your mindset when you pour out a bowl of chips midday—are you really hungry or just bored? Treats should be purchased routinely only if consumed in moderation. If this is difficult, eliminate the routine purchases and focus on snacking only during isolated circumstances, such as special occasions. In addition, try swapping out processed snacks in favor of healthier alternatives. Examples of small changes include swapping soda for flavored water or fruit water, potato chips for unsalted nuts, and ranch dressing for hummus.
- Eat more veggies: The nutritional benefit of adding vegetables and fruits to meals cannot be overstated. The vitamins, minerals, and fiber gained from eating fruits and vegetables are all essential for a healthy gut and for your overall health. If there are picky eaters in your house, working veggies covertly into meals is absolutely acceptable. You might try adding cauliflower rice into hamburger patties, chopping zucchini into pasta sauce, or loading up soups with extra vegetables. You can also try going meatless once a week—such as Meatless Monday—to incorporate more fresh vegetables into your diet.
It’s important to begin with an open and curious mind, as better nutrition is not a change you can make overnight. Acknowledging that fewer processed foods and more whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, and legumes support better nutrition is a great place to start. Then, you can begin slowly by limiting takeout and meals from restaurants to once or twice a week and replacing processed foods with whole foods in the meals you cook at home.
It’s one thing to understand the reasoning behind a healthy lifestyle, but it’s an entirely other thing to incorporate good eating habits into your daily routine. If improving your nutrition is a priority for you, there are some simple steps you can take to make it easier throughout the week.
- Take an hour on a day off to chop all of your veggies for the week and store them in bags until you’re ready to use. This will shave a decent amount of time off of dinner prep on a busy workday.
- Put together slow-cooker or pressure-cooker meals ahead of time and store them in the fridge or freezer—that way, all you have to do is pour the bag into the cooker and press start! There are a lot of ideas on Pinterest for easy meals like these.
- Eat the same thing for breakfast or lunch a few times a week. By keeping meals simple, you won’t have to think about what to eat, you’ll just do it. Easy meals like smoothies or oatmeal can also be customized with different toppings and add-ins to make it feel like a new meal every day.
- Try an app like Mealime, Plan to Eat, or Cook Smarts to help with recipe inspiration and grocery list planning.
Studies have pinpointed many adverse health effects from a chronic lack of restful sleep. Outside of those with diagnosed medical conditions, there are many areas that can be examined and improved upon for better sleep quality. Here are a few signs that you are adequately rested:
- You fall asleep within 15–20 minutes of lying down
- You regularly sleep a total of 7–9 hours in a 24-hour period
- While in your bed, your sleep is continuous; you don’t have long periods of lying awake when you wish to be sleeping
- You wake up feeling refreshed, as if you’ve “filled the tank”
- You feel alert and are able to be fully productive throughout the waking hours (it’s natural for people to feel a dip in alertness during waking hours, but with healthy sleep, alertness returns)
- Your partner or family members do not notice any disturbing or out-of-the-ordinary behavior from you while you sleep such as snoring, pauses in breathing, restlessness, or other nighttime behaviors
If you aren’t sure what your sleep quality is or want better information, many smartwatch apps or fitness trackers can help you track your sleep. Set yourself up for successful sleep What are the basics of healthy sleep? How can we ensure that we are facilitating rest? To begin, think of ways that can help prime your brain to start shutting down for the day. What is effective and enjoyable is going to look different for everyone, but here are some ideas for a relaxing routine.
- Skincare and toothbrushing routine
- Bubble bath with lavender
- Yoga or other mild stretching
Similarly, how is your bedroom set up? Is it structured for sleep or for entertainment like any other room of the house?
- Keep the temperature between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit
- Create a quiet space, free from any disturbing noises
- Keep lighting dim and turn off phones, game consoles, TVs, and other electronics
- Clear any clutter such as clothes
- Have a consistent schedule: wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day—even on days off
- Exercise daily
- Avoid caffeine after midday
- Avoid meals and alcohol a couple of hours before bed
Routine Physical Activity
We all know that exercising is good for us, but working out consistently can be a challenge. The key to increased and consistent physical activity is focusing on activities that actually bring enjoyment and making it as easy as possible. What does “easy” mean? This can vary based on individual schedules and productivity preferences. If morning-time is when productivity peaks, wake up 30 minutes earlier, sleep in exercise clothes, and keep sneakers close by the bed. If evening-time is better, pack a bag with your gear and head to the gym as soon as your workday is done.
The most difficult hurdle is making the decision to exercise. If it is built in to your current routine, it is much easier to just “let it happen.” Likewise, when starting out, ease up on the pressure. Maybe just walking around a park trail is the goal. Once you are already walking the trail every day, it is much easier to decide to jog for 5 minutes and so on.
The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. For example, to fulfill these recommendations you could do a brisk, 30-minute walk five days a week, or run about two miles a day, four days a week. Adding resistance or strength training into your fitness regimen two or more days a week also has substantial health benefits.
While it is a worthy investment to join a gym or other structured exercise program, it absolutely isn’t a requirement. There are many forms of activity that are free and effective. Here is a list of suggestions that are free or less expensive than a gym membership:
- Pokémon GO: This smartphone game where you collect creatures encourages walking by awarding distance goals and is played using a virtual map of the real world
- WoofTrax: This app raises money for an animal organization of your choice while reaching walking/ jogging goals with your furry friend
- Online fun-run/walk charities: These have become much more prevalent, and they can give those with a competitive streak something to focus on
- Strava: This app helps you track and set goals for running or cycling and functions like a social network, so you can get encouragement from your friends and community
- Down Dog: This yoga app offers guided practice at home for yogis of all levels
Active relaxation is any activity that allows focus on what the mind and body are doing. It doesn’t mean zoning out in front of Netflix or social media at the end of a long day and calling it “unwinding.” Yes, that may have a place when it comes to blowing off steam. However, our minds aren’t meant to just run for 17–19 hours a day without reprieve. Scheduling structured and purposeful relaxation can have many benefits, such as greater control for purposeful action. Some of these strategies, including those mentioned here, can even be employed during situations of high emotional turmoil to help calm the mind and body.
Active muscle relaxation
When we are bombarded by a stressor, our sympathetic nervous responds by tensing muscles (fight or flight reaction). When experienced in moderation, this is a healthy response. The problem arises when this stress is constant, which is the case for most of us. Incorporating active muscle relaxation (AMR) routinely—whether in response to a stressor or after—can help to take control back. This practice consists of getting in a comfortable seated or prone position, starting at the head and identifying and relaxing all muscles from head to toe. If you’re new this this, you might try listening to a recorded AMR session.
Meditation is an intentional practice that trains awareness to achieve mental clarity and assist in emotional stability. There are four components to successful meditation: a quiet location with few distractions, a specific and comfortable posture, a focus of attention (such as word, object, or breath), and an open attitude (letting distractions go without judgment). For beginners, Headspace is a great app with a lot of free features.
Yoga is a practice combining physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation where the goal is to focus energy on the body’s abilities at any given moment. As previously mentioned, Down Dog is a great yoga app with a lot of free features.
Deep, focused breathing
Deep, focused breathing is often paired with the previous strategies, but it is also excellent on its own and is perhaps the easiest to use “on the go.” The goal is to focus on breath in order to empty the mind of other distractions. To give this a try, breathe in through the nose for three seconds and out through the mouth or nose for four seconds. This strategy can also be a good practice to aid in falling asleep.
Give yourself the gift of a solid foundation and help to break the cycle of glorifying overworking and burning out. Take a few moments and evaluate each of the four areas—good nutrition, adequate sleep, routine physical activity, and active relaxation. Which of these areas could use improvement in your life? Pick one or two things that you can do in the next 30 days to make this area stronger. You are worth it.
Carol Hurst, LVT, CVPM, CCFP, is an associate consultant at VetSupport in Waco, Texas.
Photo credits: Photo by Corrine Dates; Lisovskaya/iStock via Getty Images; demaerre/iStock via Getty Images; fizkes/iStock via Getty Images