Strategies for Emotional Coping

February 2022 |

How to weather the storm when stress is unavoidable.

Many in the veterinary profession are in crisis. Veterinarians are 1.5 times as likely as the general public to experience depression, twice as likely to experience serious psychological distress and three times as likely to consider suicide, according to Not One More Vet (NOMV), a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterinarians find support.

NOMV’s Dr. Carrie Jurney suggests emotional-based coping strategies for when the cause of stress cannot be reduced or removed. “This is what we do to deal with the stuff we cannot fix,” she says.

Physical Strategies
First, lay a foundation for physical resilience.

  • Physical self-care. Schedule one hour per day for physical self-care, whether that means working out, meditating, preparing healthy meals or going to a dentist appointment. “You need to put actual time in your schedule to do this,” says Jurney. “And that appointment with yourself needs to be just as important as the other 10 million things you do for other people.”
  • Things to limit. Eat comfort food in moderation and don’t use alcohol or prescription drugs to self-medicate. “We need to get real about how rampant this is in our profession,” says Jurney, pointing to findings that 63% of veterinarians were considered “at-risk” drinkers and 57% had taken a psychoactive medication in the last month, with only 5% of those prescribed by a doctor.

If you are starting to feel stressed, ask yourself:

  1. Have I eaten in the past two hours?
  2. Have I drunk water in the last hour?
  3. Have I gone to the bathroom today?
  4. Have I stood up and walked 100 steps in the last hour?
  5. Have I showered in the last 24 hours?
  6. Have I slept at least seven hours in the last 24 hours?

Emotional Strategies
Next, work on emotional resilience. “Once we’ve got our bodies in the right space, we need to get our minds right,” says Jurney.

  • Balance. Make time for family, friends and hobbies. “When this job kicks you in the teeth, you need to have other parts in your life to fall back on,” says Jurney. “No career, no matter how much you love it, is worth giving every piece of your soul.”
  • Emotional intelligence. Develop self-awareness, emotional control, empathy and communication skills to help deal with negative emotions and stress. “We can’t control our emotions, only how we react to them,” says Jurney.
  • Psychotherapy. Consider it. A Merck study on well-being found that only half of veterinarians in serious psychologic distress seek out care from a mental health professional.
  • Suppression. Suppressing feelings briefly can be a useful short-term tool. “We all need to do this occasionally,” says Jurney. “In that moment where the client is yelling or a patient is dying, you might not exactly have time to do a mindfulness exercise, and it’s really not okay to lose it. But soon after, we need to quickly unpack those feelings. That can be a quick check-in with a coworker, or taking a moment to process hard emotions.”
  • Self-compassion. Be as nice to yourself as you would be to someone else. “We are usually far harder on ourselves than we would ever be on one of our loved ones,” says Jurney.

Making a habit of these strategies will help get you through dark times. Bottom line? Stress will happen in this profession, so plan for it, says Jurney: “Get your body and mind in a place to process your emotions and weather the storm.”

Where to Turn

Two online support groups for veterinarians: