Stress is inevitable
Resilience allows us to stand strong in the face of adversity, bounce back from stumbles and grow from crises we’ve endured.
I have a confession: Writing this article was a source of great stress. Here’s the mind blower: Stress isn’t all bad.
I’ve worn many hats in my two-decade adventure in veterinary medicine. Most recently as a co-founder and positive change ninja with Flourish Veterinary Consulting, I’m wearing a hat that reads, “Positive Psychology Practitioner.”
Positive psychology is the applied science of human thriving. When I put my current professional hat on, I’m working to empower veterinary professionals and organizations with the tools for cultivating well-being in work and life. Because I know firsthand how stressful a career in veterinary medicine can feel.
The uncomfortable truth is, all the psychological tools and tricks in the world can’t eliminate stress from our lives. In fact, the desire to live a good-feeling, stress-free life can be quite harmful, resulting in increased depressive symptoms, more negative emotion and even a physiological response similar to that of chronic illness. Stress is inevitable. What we make of it matters.
The tools from positive psychology become transformative when we use them to help us build a healthier stress mindset. You see, sometimes stress has an upside.
A healthy stress mindset contributes to resilience. Resilience allows us to stand strong in the face of adversity, bounce back from stumbles and grow from crises we’ve endured. How does one build such a mindset?
Here are two tools I’ve used:
1. Real-Time Resilience
The mental judo tricks I’ve learned from the research of Karen Reivich, Ph.D., who studies resilience, have been instrumental in helping me develop a healthy stress mindset.
One tool is called the Plan Strategy. Use the sentence starter “If ‘x’ happens, I will ‘y,’” and then write a brief plan for how you’ll handle a potentially stressful situation you anticipate happening.
When I agree to write an article like this, I place unhelpful pressure on myself to create something unique and engaging. As I write, this periodically causes my mind to go blank and I panic — “Do I have this in me? Do I even know what I’m talking about? Goodness, I can’t think of a single clever thing to say! No one will like this. I’ll never be asked to write something again.”
This is when my Plan Strategy clicks in. Having anticipated this stress spiral, I wrote myself a simple real-time resilience plan. It looks like this: “When the stress spiral starts to happen, I’ll stand up and take a short walk around the house.”
Dr. Reivich’s research shows that simple strategies like these, when written in advance, help the brain shift from the emotional centers to what psychologists call the “executive function” centers. When we engage executive function, we are able to respond to stress instead of just react. Using the strategy over and over, we create neural connections that lessen the blow of the trigger and shorten the duration and intensity of the resulting stress. Stress spiral denied!
We all have triggers in the veterinary hospital that set us off on our stress spirals. One that comes to mind from my time as a hospital administrator was when an employee would call in sick. I think back to how I’d react in those situations and, more often than not, it was not the best version of myself. The stress spiral kicked in and took over.
If I could go back in time, I would have built a Plan Strategy for myself. It probably would have looked something like this: “If an employee calls in sick, I’ll tell him as genuinely as I can that I hope he feels better soon and to not worry about us. I’ll then look over the roster of employees in the hospital that day and take stock of the strengths they have that will contribute to the day going well.”
Take a few minutes to think of one or two things you know will trigger you at your hospital. Then write out a real-time resilience Plan Strategy. Read what you’ve written and tuck the paper away somewhere safe and cozy. By doing so, you’ll also be tucking the plan away in the mental judo areas of your brain.
Your stress spiral doesn’t stand a chance.
2. Purpose Spotting
I’ve done a ton of writing between my education and career. And yet, after all these years and all this practice, I still feel stressed when I sit down to write something new. I’ll come up with all sorts of excuses to postpone starting. Despite all the excuses and anxiety I allow to fester in my mind, I started and completed writing this article.
How? By using a trick learned from my friend and colleague, Dr. Zach Mercurio.
Dr. Mercurio studies the science and practice of purpose and meaningfulness. His research has uncovered an incredible link between the feeling of meaningfulness and well-being. It turns out, being purposeful can help alleviate the kind of stress I feel when I have to create a piece of written work.
When I notice myself kicking the can down the road on a writing project, I ask myself: “What would happen to another human being (or beings) if I didn’t write this?”
In this case, I’d be letting down another friend and colleague. If I don’t write this article, I’ll be forgoing an obligation to her. Furthermore, it will negatively affect her ability to get her work done well and on time, as she would have a gap in her publication roster. I’d be adding quite a bit of unnecessary stress and discomfort to her life.
Dismissing responsibility to a thing is relatively easy. It’s much harder to dismiss responsibility to another human being. Thinking about this was all the motivation I needed to open up Word and start typing away.
Dr. Mercurio suggests considering a task you’re not particularly fond of in the workplace and answer these two questions:
- What would happen to another human being if I don’t do this task?
- How would completing this task positively affect another human being?
In all the veterinary hospitals I’ve been in, I’ve heard this almost universal gripe: “Ugh, it’s such a pain to keep these records. Who has the time?” Now when I hear that statement, I ask, “What would happen to another human being if you don’t keep these records?”
For one thing, the next person who encounters this client or patient won’t have a clue what was discussed during the last visit. That would put the next employee at a disadvantage and force the client to repeat herself. That’s inefficient medicine and client service.
The next thing I say is, “How would keeping these records positively affect another human being?” Typically, I hear responses around improved care.
I’ve found that this exercise acts as a psychological endorphin.
Meaning in work is directly tied to the impact the work has on another human being. Finding the meaningfulness in a task can help mask the pain of the task. I don’t much like the writing process, but when I intentionally identify who my efforts affect, it’s easier to work through the discomfort. You may not care for keeping records on every client interaction, but if you can find the meaningfulness in such work, the annoyance might be more bearable.
Working in veterinary medicine is challenging work and can be deeply meaningful. By preparing ourselves for the inevitable trigger moments and looking for the effects our tasks have on others, we can put the energy from our stress to good use. Like a superhero.
And just like that, article written!
VetPartners member Josh Vaisman is a positive psychology practitioner and co-founder of Flourish Veterinary Consulting. He’s served the veterinary industry since 1998 in roles ranging from technician to practice manager to hospital owner.