Lauren S. Grider, DVM, CCFP
Mark,* a twenty-eight-year-old emergency veterinarian, started getting serious about creating his self-care plan after a particularly difficult week. He had drawn holiday weekend duty in the ER, and his last shift was exceptionally busy, with a heavy load of trauma patients, many of which didn’t survive. Toward the end of the shift, he had to explain a pet’s grave prognosis to the grief-stricken clients in the middle of the waiting room because all of the exam rooms were already full and urgent treatment decisions were required. Then, on the way back to the treatment area, he was stopped by an irate client in the hallway. She was angered by the length of her wait and was not swayed by Mark’s explanation of emergency triage practices. After these stressful interactions, Mark was already on edge. However, when he entered the treatment area to find that one of his favorite hospitalized patients was crashing, it was the last straw. He ended up yelling at a technician who did not prepare medications quickly enough, and at home he snapped at his daughter when she asked him to play basketball with her. Unfortunately, this was not the first time that Mark had taken his frustrations out on his coworkers and family.
Mark met with a therapist through his workplace’s employee assistance program, and they started by focusing on real-world strategies for managing Mark’s stress. Mark was tasked with making a list of self-care habits to incorporate into his routine so that he might have a deeper well of patience to draw from when confronted with everyday work stresses. Thinking of ways to improve his physical self-care during shifts was a piece of cake. That was as easy as setting a timer to ensure he remembered to eat lunch and taking a water bottle to work so that he could meet his hydration goals. Similarly, he had no trouble thinking of ways to improve his professional and social wellbeing. However, when it came to improving his emotional and spiritual wellness, he drew a blank.
Understanding Spiritual and Emotional Wellness
In discussions surrounding wellness in the veterinary field, there is often a focus on physical, social, and professional needs. We talk about important strategies for ensuring proper nutrition and hydration, engaging in exercise, establishing workplace boundaries, and improving our connection with others. And these practices are extremely important! After all, how can we provide the best care to our patients if we aren’t properly caring for ourselves? However, two core self-care themes (Figure 1) are often overlooked in conversations about veterinary wellness: spirituality and emotional health.
Figure 1: Core Self-Care Themes
Spiritual wellness involves feeling connected to – and searching for – meaning, purpose, and awe-inspired relationships with the self, others, and the world.1 It is a universal and essential part of the human experience, but sometimes we shy away from discussing it. One of the reasons that the topic of spirituality might be avoided is that it is often conflated with religion. However, spirituality and religion are two different things. While organized religion can be an important part of spirituality for some, it is not an essential component. The concepts of religion and spirituality overlap and coexist, with a wide range of expression. While both might involve belief in a higher power, religion is an organized belief system and spirituality is a more individual experience.1 It is possible to focus on development of one’s own spirituality without engaging in organized religion.
Emotional wellness involves both emotional intelligence and emotional regulation.1 Learning how to perceive and understand our own emotions, as well as how to effectively manage them, is an essential skill.1 In order to develop awareness of our own emotions, we must be able to name them. Using tools such as the Wheel of Emotions can help us identify which feelings we are experiencing and how they are related. In turn, we can use this information to process our emotions properly rather than ignoring, minimizing, or suppressing them. With practice and improved self-understanding, emotional regulation becomes much easier.
Because the dimensions of wellness are interdependent, a person’s spiritual and emotional health impact all other aspects of their life. Spirituality practices and emotional regulation have been correlated with multiple beneficial health outcomes. Improved spirituality increases immune function, self-esteem, sense of calm, leadership, and the ability to sustain both intention and attention.2-4 Spiritual wellness decreases levels of anxiety, depression, and addiction.2-4 Spirituality practices also influence protective factors such as social support and community building.5 Fostering emotional wellness in the form of happiness, hope, optimism, and forgiveness is associated with improved psychological wellbeing and life satisfaction, fewer depressive symptoms, and greater social connection.1
The Importance of Gratitude and Meaning
One method of cultivating both spiritual and emotional wellness is meaning making, or searching for silver linings in times of adversity.1,6,7 Creating meaning from challenges is important because these obstacles are necessary for growth.1 Meaning making improves sense of self, ability to cope with stress, happiness, resilience, and optimism.1,6,7 Individuals who have overcome challenges are often happier and more resilient than those who have not.1,8,9 Meaning can be cultivated by practicing gratitude, finding purpose in work and in serving others, or connecting with a higher power such as nature.
Gratitude involves noticing and appreciating positive things in our lives. This type of appreciation is not exclusive to major events, making it easy to incorporate into everyday life. In fact, gratitude can be practiced anytime, anywhere, and by anyone. A simple gratitude practice might involve pausing to feel the morning sun on your skin, to watch a bumble bee move from flower to flower, or to admire colorful foliage. Another option is to simply acknowledge something exciting that has happened recently, like a positive case outcome, a special event, or a major milestone.
Personalizing the Approach
After learning more about developing spiritual and emotional wellness, Mark decided to start by spending more time in nature. Now, he hikes for an hour before his scheduled ER shifts. He finds that having that time to clear his mind before going into work helps him stay calmer and more focused during his shifts. He has also worked hard to identify feelings of frustration and to address them right away rather than letting them build. This emotional awareness has helped him avoid taking his negative feelings out on colleagues and family members. Finally, after completing each shift, he identifies at least one “silver lining” for the day and talks about this positive experience with his family when he gets home. Though this strategy doesn’t “erase” the bad things that happen at work, Mark feels that it helps him focus more on the many ways he helps his patients rather than on the few things that don’t go well.
*Name changed to protect anonymity.
1. Ohrt, J. J., Clarke, P. B., & Conley, A. H. (2019). Wellness counseling: A holistic approach to prevention and intervention. American Counseling Association.
2. Koenig, H. G., & Cohen, H. J. (2002). The link between religion and health. London, England: Oxford University Press.
3. Cashwell, C. S., & Young, J. S. (2011). Integrating spirituality and religion into counseling. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association..
4. Begley, S. (2007). Train your mind, change your brain. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
5. Hill, P. C., & Pargament, K. (2003). Advances in the conceptualization and measurement of religion and spirituality: Implications for physical and mental health research. American Psychologist, 58, 64 – 74.
6. Croft, A., Dunne, E.W., & Quoidbach, J. (2013). From tribulations to appreciation: Experiencing adversity in the past predicts greater savoring in the present. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 511-516.
7. Seery, M.D., Holman, E.A., & Silver, R. C. (2010). Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 1025-1041.
8. Croft, A., Dunn, E. W., & Quoidbach, J. (2013). From tribulations to appreciation: Experiencing adversity in the past predicts greater savoring in the present. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 511–516
9. Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010). Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 1025–1041.