Looking after your mental health – Alison Speakman

15 May 2023


Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 15-21 May 2023 and this year is focusing on anxiety.

It is estimated that approximately 1 in 4 adults are diagnosed with a mental health disorder with the most common being depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. Evidence shows that compared to the general population; members of the veterinary profession have higher levels of these disorders.

It is recognised that whatever our role, working in the veterinary profession, whilst being very rewarding, carries a high level of both emotional and physical pressure. As individuals with different genetic constitutions and backgrounds, our ability to cope with these pressures varies and can variably affect our mental health.

Our mental health is a “continuum” (see below) on which we all “sit”, and we can move in either direction along it dependent on life’s challenges. It is an important part of managing our own mental health to be able to recognise where you are on this spectrum at any time and the direction you are travelling! As one of many in the profession with diagnosed “general anxiety disorder” I have travelled up and down this spectrum many times, fluctuated from thriving, silently struggling, embarrassment, self-stigma, and on a couple of occasions “crisis” necessitating immediate intervention. I should also say it has taken 25 years before being comfortable enough to admit it!!

Remember you are not alone, support is available, this can be managed BUT ASK FOR HELP.


Why do we get stressed and anxious?

Short episodes of stress and anxiety are a “natural” response when under pressure that motivates us to solve problems positively and avoid dangerous situations as we resolve the issues of daily life. In general, they are self-limiting, and it is not possible (or realistic) to live without it. HOWEVER, when that stress and anxiety become frequent or persistent, more severe, cause unrealistic or excessive fear, affect our ability to work or relationships, this type of stress is UNHEALTHY. At this point it is important that appropriate intervention and professional help is obtained, as you would for a physical illness.

Important signs to recognise include:

  • Feeling wound-up/on-edge
  • Worrying excessively most days and unable to focus as a result
  • Irritable, impatient
  • Unable to relax
  • Unable to sleep well, exhaustion
  • Altered concentration, mind racing, blank or intrusive thoughts
  • “Butterflies” in stomach, palpitations

So why are veterinary professionals more susceptible?

What I am really asking is “As veterinary professionals, why does our stress bucket get full and overflow?” There are many work and external factors that can add “stress” into our lives. Some people are able to cope with large amounts of stress (i.e. “large bucket”) whilst others do not manage as easily (“smaller bucket”). When your “bucket” is full of stress, it overflows resulting in compromised mental health.



How can we help ourselves?

As per the mental health continuum above, if you feel that you are struggling or in crisis, please seek immediate professional help from your GP or local hospital. If you cannot access or feel unable to, please contact Vetlife www.vetlife.org.uk/how-we-can-help/ or Samaritans (Call 116123).

To look after your mental health and prevent overwhelming stress, it is imperative that we take preventative and early interventional approaches to:

  • Identify our triggers of pressure and stress

Recognised work related veterinary profession pressures

  • Work intensity – long hours, complex and emotionally challenging cases, high volume caseload
  • Work-life balance – effect of long working hours on home life, relationships, personal “down-time”
  • Performance anxiety – particularly new graduates, complex cases
  • Challenging clients – for reasons of emotion, costs, discrimination, etc
  • Challenging workplace culture – unfortunately sometimes poor organisation, suboptimal relationships with managers, colleagues, discrimination, etc.

Added to this are external factors such as genetic influences, personality traits (e.g perfectionism, self-criticism), socio-economic factors, physical health, acute life events (e.g. bereavements), environmental factors which can have a cumulative effect.

  • Address and reduce the triggers where possible

Where work factors are an issue, discuss with employers/managers ways to reasonably adjust your workload, ask for additional support, discuss with your workplace Mental Health First Aider (if you have one). If these are not working out for you, consider whether remaining in your current role is appropriate for your mental health.

  • Accept that there are some things that cannot be changed

Although it isn’t easy accepting that some things can’t be changed in life, by doing so it will help you focus your time and energy more productively.

  • Develop helpful coping strategies to dissipate some of the unavoidable pressure and stress

It is important to make these as much part of your daily routine as getting dressed! It is too easy to convince yourself “I haven’t got time to do any of that” but it is critical that you implement strategies to cope with the challenges of veterinary life.

  • Talk! It is common for those in professional roles to feel embarrassed or have self-stigma about admitting that you are struggling with your mental health. Please talk – whether to friends, family, colleagues, GP, counsellor, Vetlife, there are many people who can listen, understand, and signpost you to appropriate support.
  • Physically connect with others – friends and family, reduces isolation and provides positive valued experiences.
  • Physical exercise – get out in fresh air for at least 10-15mins daily (e.g. lunchtime), dog walk, exercise class, etc. if you have reduced mobility the NHS website has some excellent fitness tips. Get out in nature as much as possible.
  • Good sleep habits – as far as possible (within the confines of out-of-hours rotas), ensure that you regularly have access to 7-8 hours sleep/night. Do not use digital devices at least one hour before bedtime.
  • Healthy diet – Ensure you drink adequate water during the day, it is essential to implement at least a short break for something healthy to eat – even on a busy day in any workplace.
  • Learn a new skill – make time whether it is once weekly or more often (e.g. new recipe, language, sport, craft, DIY…..) this can increase purpose and aid relaxation.
  • Give to others – volunteering (whether in the professional or local community), helping friends and family, little acts of kindness!
  • Pay attention to the present – mindfulness, focus on breathing techniques, focus on something positive in the present however small, we can’t change the past or worry about the future too much! nhs.uk/mental-health/self-help/tips-and-support/mindfulness/

BEWARE: Unhelpful coping strategies – these INCREASE stress and add to the problem

  • Continuously working excessively long hours
  • High caffeine or sugar intake
  • Self-medicating with alcohol, smoking or recreational drugs to relax
  • Lack of sleep
  • Ignoring feelings of stress
  • Isolating yourself from others

Remember, however challenging things are, there is help and support for you. Please don’t struggle in silence. Talk to someone – please contact your GP, hospital, Vetlife, Samaritans if your mental health is struggling.