DVM, BCC, PCC
Go With the Flow co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is the founder of Gifted Leaders and an expert coach specializing in leadership and team development. He is one of only five veterinarians in the world to hold a credential from the International Coaching Federation.Read Articles Written by Jeff Thoren
Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler has a law practice focused exclusively on veterinary transactions and veterinary business law matters.Read Articles Written by Trey Cutler
You’re nearing the end of another demanding 10-hour shift, and as you look back over the day, you realize yet again that you haven’t taken time to eat or use the restroom. If that sounds vaguely familiar, you might have fallen prey to Sacrifice syndrome, the result of your heavy responsibilities as an integral team member and the constant pressure on you to get results.
Because of a strong commitment to our honorable work, we naturally cope with increased demands, challenges and crises by taking on more of the burden. But, over time, we pay the price for sacrificing ourselves continuously to our jobs. According to executive coach Dr. Kym Harris-Lee, signs that you might have or be moving toward the Sacrifice syndrome include:
- Working harder and longer.
- Feeling tired, even after getting enough sleep.
- Finding less time (or no time) for the things you used to enjoy.
- Rarely being able to attend your place of worship or find time for quiet contemplation.
- Getting less exercise or physical activity than usual.
- Thinking no one understands what you need to do or how much you must work.
Stress will always be part of a veterinary professional’s reality, but many of us fail to manage the cycle of sacrifice and renewal. Although stress can be a powerful motivating force, many of us experience too much of it, which decreases our engagement at work, compromises our immune system and limits our cognitive functioning. The real challenge we face is too little recovery time.
Long before we figure it out cognitively, cues suggest we might have lost ourselves and need to engage in renewal. Most of the time, the cues are vague or easy to miss because we attribute them to living a busy, stressful life. However, the cues can vary and include things like headaches, weight gain, irritability, disconnects in important relationships and even chronic illnesses.
Dr. Harris-Lee offers useful advice: “Pay attention to your cues, listen to the signals your body is sending you, and take action. Plan, create and take advantage of opportunities to renew.”
In an article published by the American Psychological Association, researchers Dr. Richard Boyatzis, Dr. Daniel Goleman and others concurred, stating, “Reducing the amount of stress does not seem to be a sustainable strategy to help people manage its effects.” Instead, they propose, “Focusing on the activities that promote renewal is an alternative approach.” They suggest that the only antidote to cumulative stress is renewal in terms of the arousal of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
Stress and Renewal Processes
Stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the body’s response to stressful experiences and determines how people handle them. A practical definition of stress can be the activation of the SNS, the secretion of the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol and their associated physiological effects. These effects include rapid breathing and an increased heart rate, constricted pupils, and the diversion of blood from our gut to our muscles. That is all part of our body’s fight-or-flight response.
In contrast, activation of the PNS, our body’s renewal system, ameliorates and reverses the effects of SNS activation. A practical definition of renewal can be the activation of the PNS and the shifting of the body’s endocrine secretion to oxytocin and vasopressin. This shift allows us to engage with new ideas, people and emotions and enhance cognitive functioning. When operating under the influence of our PNS, we are in a more relaxed and open state. Our creative juices flow, and new neural pathways form in our brains, paving the way for new learning and sustained behavioral change.
Either system (stress or renewal) operates to the exclusion of the other. So, an intentional trigger event is necessary to initiate a shift to the other hormonal system. Dr. Esther Sternberg, a physician, shares the following metaphor:
“Think of a car throttling down the highway at 120 mph. That’s the stress response.” The parasympathetic nervous system, then, is the brake. Said Sternberg, “When you are stressed, you have your foot on the gas, pedal to the floor.” When you activate your PNS (for example, by taking slow, deep breaths), you actively engage the brake and slow down.
We need to find ways to balance our SNS-driven stress responses with our PNS-mediated renewal response.
Drs. Boyatzis and Goleman suggest that the relative frequency of renewal versus stress determines our sense of whether we’re merely surviving or thriving. Renewal experiences, if sufficient in arousal, can help return the body to its prestress levels, they said. The result is that we have resources and energy in relationships, work and life to feel more engaged, excited and satisfied.
The four critical components of any renewal process are mind, body, heart and spirit. As food for thought, here are strategies for invoking PNS-mediated renewal:
- Rekindle your hope by allowing yourself to dream and conjure up a personal vision for the future. Reflect on or discuss your greater purpose in life.
- Express compassion or caring for another person (or pet).
- Express gratitude to another person for how they helped you or made a difference in your life.
- Use mindfulness techniques like breathing exercises to center yourself and establish an open, non-judgmental stance in the present moment.
- Invite moments of playfulness into your work and life.
- Take a nature walk. This activity often stimulates mindfulness and expands your perception and awareness of the world.
- Share an enjoyable meal with family or friends.
- Spend quality time with your spouse or partner.
- Spend time in meditation and prayer.
- Participate in physical activities like yoga, martial arts or other forms of exercise in a mindful manner.
In their book “Helping People Change,” the authors offer these pieces of practical advice related to renewal activities:
- To combat annoying and chronic stress, being comfortable with various renewal activities is a potent antidote.
- Smaller doses, in terms of time and more frequent episodes of renewal activities, are better than longer, less frequent ones.
- Using a variety of activities in renewal is better than using the same one or two repeatedly.
Research is finding that a balanced number of renewal activities versus stress episodes in a given period is positively related to a person’s resilience and empathic concern and appears to drive increased levels of engagement, subjective well-being and career satisfaction. Who couldn’t use more of those things in today’s workplace?
What price are you paying for becoming trapped in the Sacrifice syndrome, and more importantly, how might you benefit from prioritizing renewal in your work and life?
- “Avoid the Sacrifice Syndrome: Make Time for Renewal,” by Dr. Kym Harris-Lee, bit.ly/3HHp2k8
- “Thrive and Survive: Assessing Personal Sustainability,” American Psychological Association, bit.ly/3HFoScI
- “Three Attributes to Sustainable Leadership,” by Ben Cole, bit.ly/3uSqUin