Mental well-being and positive psychology for veterinary professionals - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Mental well-being and positive psychology for veterinary professionals

“Just one breath, taken mindfully, can change the course of our day. A few days like that and we can change the course of our life, if we choose”

Earlier this year, Laura Woodward, counsellor to the veterinary profession, published a bookMental Wellbeing and Positive Psychology for Veterinary Professionals. The aim was to provide veterinary professionals with the knowledge and tools to tackle their mental health and well-being with a pre-emptive, proactive and solution-based approach.

In this exclusive article, Laura discusses how to use this book and the tools it provides to help your mental health.

How did the book come about?

This book has been developed over about six years. For my entire career, I have spent most of my time at work ensconced in the operating theatre with one other person for hours at a time. This “other person” changes all the time.

As most vets and nurses know, there’s something about a surgical theatre that brings out the deepest of conversations. Maybe it’s because the surgeon and anaesthetist are masked up and focused on different tasks rather than facing each other straight on, and we are, therefore, a bit oblivious to each other’s facial reactions. As therapists, we are trained to sit at an angle to clients rather than facing them directly. It’s easier to speak truthfully to someone if you can comfortably avoid eye contact and you don’t feel that you’re being interrogated: it’s the opposite of the interrogation room in any TV cop drama. Or maybe it’s because there’s an unwritten rule that the personal stuff said in theatre, stays in theatre.

I became fascinated with human thoughts and behaviours out of a genuine interest in my colleagues’ differing stories. Then I had children; their developing minds blew my mind, and their learned and innate behaviours mesmerised me. I also had adults in my life with difficulties, personality disorders and misbehaviours, as well as other adults who were resilient, compassionate and fun. This all gave me a passion for psychology, and I studied to become a counsellor over several years while working.

Because of the kids, I specialised in child and adolescent therapy. I also qualified as a positive psychologist, and I’m currently training to be an equine psychotherapist. I then went on to study Buddhist psychotherapy because of the way it looks at our cognitive, energetic and physical being – I love its holistic approach. I also qualified as a mindfulness teacher.

I started writing about mental health and well-being for Improve Veterinary Practice and have continued to do so for six years now. But I still wanted to do more to help change the mindset of our profession. We are not doing the right things or enough of the right things to improve the horrific statistics of mental health crises, burnout and suicide in the veterinary profession. If we were, the statistics would be improving. It was after the publication of an article on the neuroscience of suicide that Wiley contacted me and asked me to write this book, and for this, I’m very grateful.

So, I have tried to collate all the knowledge I have gleaned from my many mentors, lecturers and leaders over the last decade to place it in your hands. I have designed the book to be portable enough to carry around with you, comfortable enough to read in bed and concise enough that you don’t have to go trawling through the internet for some help specific to our profession. I hope you will dip in and out of it many times, finding something new that applies to you or that you can use to help someone else each time.

Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions

Dalai Lama

How to use the book

Mental Wellbeing and Positive Psychology for Veterinary Professionals is designed to be carried around with you, read first thing in the morning and at night-time and dipped into on the bus or train or while at work. An essential part of any mental first-aider’s reading, this book tackles multiple difficulties specific to the veterinary world and many others that are part of our often-tumultuous life outside of work. Nothing is taboo in this easy-to-follow and gentle but firmly proactive guide to investigating your own emotions and learning to deal with them in a way that works for you.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom

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This book will teach you how to recognise stimuli and how to pause to make the space large enough to choose your reactions, both internal and external, so that you’ll be happy with your choices. Instead of continuing on autopilot, reacting reflexively and regretting your actions, you will learn to react reflectively in a way that will ultimately make life more enjoyable for you and those around you.

I have been writing for Improve Veterinary Practice for over six years, and I am very grateful to them for allowing me to use some of the materials I wrote for them in Mental Wellbeing and Positive Psychology for Veterinary Professionals.

Part one: strategies

Part one explains effective strategies for dealing with frequent and not-so-frequent difficulties in our lives, with our multiple roles being taken into consideration and becoming a reality. It looks at the basics of emotional intelligence, mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and so much more. But these strategies are explained in a way that helps us understand them in a logical fashion so we can apply them in real life today.

This section provides many tools that you will need to refer to throughout the book. You can skim over it, study it in depth or both. In any case, I hope that you will flip back to it frequently. Some strategies will ring true with some people and different ones with others. You may use one strategy one day and a different strategy when you are in the same situation another time. You are in control of this.

Part two: how to meditate

I wrote this section in order to demystify the whole process of meditation. Meditation is, of course, another strategy, but it deserves a whole section to itself.

Meditation can be done at any time, for any length of time and in any place in any clothes. I explain in sensible, effective ways how to incorporate meditation into any hectic life. I understand the many hats we wear as vets, nurses, managers, counsellors, parents, students and family members – multitasking is part of life. But meditation can become part of our lives without being the chore at the bottom of the list, and in this section, I show the many varied forms meditation can take.

Part three: specific difficulties and applying the strategies

Part three is the section to dip in and out of as we discuss numerous difficulties, such as anxiety, fear of failure, imposter syndrome, compassion fatigue and many, many more (including grief, burnout and suicide). No one strategy applies to all, so I have suggested ways for you to use the processes in whatever way they work for you here with each difficult topic.

This part is self-help. This often makes it more valid for you and, therefore, more effective than if you were just doing as instructed.

The greatest weapon we have against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another

William James

Part four: therapy

Self-help is not a panacea, and neither is mindfulness. Many of us will benefit from therapy beyond the scope of Mental Wellbeing and Positive Psychology for Veterinary Professionals. Part four, therefore, explains some of the many therapies available to us and what they entail. It’s a minefield until explained.

There are differences between CBT, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), psychotherapeutic counselling, animal-assisted therapy, etc. Here, we simplify and demystify again. Somebody who is overwhelmed and in crisis should not have to figure out the best type of therapy for them while alone.

Therapy hand in hand with this book is like therapy with someone holding your hand

Laura Woodward

Part five: journeys, mountains and climbing tools

Sometimes it’s helpful, and also fascinating, to see how others react and behave in different situations to those we are familiar with. So, part five of Mental Wellbeing and Positive Psychology for Veterinary Professionals uses cases from real life (anonymous and altered to protect identities) and looks at how they applied different tools to help them navigate the difficulties they brought to the counselling room.

We are complex creatures, and these cases are brought to life by demonstrating that any crisis is multifactorial. I’ve never met a client in counselling who had only one problem or only one cause of their problems.

It teaches us to keep our heads out of the sand so that, when the inevitable happens, we can do more than just keep our heads above water

These case studies are from vets and vet nurses examining their journeys and the various life hurdles they met along their paths. It can help students, new graduates and recent graduates to see what may lie ahead of them in their journeys, as often I see these patterns recurring. But it can also help those of us who have been in practice for many years. It is here for head nurses, specialists, managers and everyone involved in our industry.

If we are pre-warned about common difficulties, we are less likely to feel shocked and alone when they happen to us. If we are pre-armed with a selection of tools to deal with life’s difficulties, we won’t burn out, leave the profession or take our own lives.

Part six: positive psychology and more strategies

“Life is for living” may sound like a meme, but it makes so much sense. Positive psychology is all around us. We no longer buy alarm clocks; we have gentle lights which gradually wake us and then a burst of birdsong greets us at the start of the day. It’s the experience we want, not just the functionality. My friend’s new car greets her when she hops in with a customised seat position and pre-heated steering wheel. This is the fun world of product design: realising that we want to have pleasant experiences, not just “get through it”.

Mental well-being can learn from this, and this last part of the book suggests ways for us to promote our experience from “okay” to “good”, from “good” to “great” or from “great” to “fantastic”. This is not beyond our reach, nor is it selfish. If we achieve a level of bonhomie which we can spread around us and create an aura of calm and well-being, even for just a few minutes of each day, we make the world a better place.

Just one breath, taken mindfully, can change the course of our day. A few days like that and we can change the course of our life, if we choose

Laura Woodward

Laura Woodward

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.


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