There’s no escaping the immutable fact that a career in veterinary medicine will always carry a certain level of stress.
While humans are well-equipped to deal with repeated short-term stressors, problems begin to arise when we don’t get enough downtime to rest and mentally reset.
In this blog post, we’re going to talk about what stress actually is, how to identify it, and what you can do to better manage your daily stressors.
What is stress?
Stress is a natural response to a perceived threat or challenge. When we perceive a situation as stressful, the body's "fight or flight" response is triggered, releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare the body to respond to the perceived threat. It’s a fundamental part of the human survival system, and we probably wouldn’t have made it this far as a species if we didn’t have that surge of hormones catapulting us into a state of heightened energy and alertness to help us handle difficult situations.
Of course, there’s no shortage of things to get stressed about in the veterinary workplace. Whether you’re dealing with cantankerous pups, distraught clients, or long hours, it’s inevitable that you’ll run into more than your fair share of stressors when pursuing a career in veterinary medicine.
While short-term stress can be beneficial and help us to perform under pressure, repeated acute stress and persistent chronic stress can lead to a variety of negative health effects. It’s important to manage stress effectively in order to reduce its negative impact on our wellbeing and prevent minor issues snowballing into bigger problems.
Physical symptoms of stress
As noted above, the body responds to stress by releasing stress hormones. This response can affect various bodily functions and symptoms, including:
- Headaches: Stress can cause tension headaches or migraines, which may feel like a dull ache or throbbing pain in the head.
- Muscle tension or pain: Stress can cause muscle tension or pain, particularly in the neck, shoulders, and back, which can lead to stiffness or soreness.
- Fatigue or low energy: Stress can lead to fatigue or low energy levels, making it difficult to focus or complete tasks.
- Trouble sleeping or insomnia: Stress can interfere with sleep, making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night.
- Digestive issues: Stress can cause digestive issues such as stomach pain, nausea, bloating, or diarrhea.
- Rapid heartbeat or palpitations: Stress can cause an increase in heart rate or palpitations, which may feel like fluttering or pounding sensations in the chest.
- Sweating: Stress can cause sweating, particularly in the palms or underarms.
- Shortness of breath: Stress can cause rapid breathing or shortness of breath, making it difficult to catch your breath or feel like there is enough air in your lungs.
- High blood pressure: Stress can cause an increase in blood pressure, which can lead to cardiovascular problems if left untreated.
- Chest pain or tightness: Stress can cause chest pain or tightness, which may feel like a heavy pressure or squeezing sensation in the chest.
It's important to note that not everyone will experience all of these physical symptoms of stress, and some individuals may experience additional symptoms not listed here. If you are experiencing physical symptoms of stress, it's important to seek support from a healthcare provider to help manage your symptoms and reduce your stress levels.
Behavioral symptoms of stress
The psychological response to stress can also contribute to a variety of behavioral symptoms. While behavioral symptoms can vary from person to person, some common symptoms include:
- Changes in appetite or eating habits, such as overeating or undereating.
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other substances as a coping mechanism.
- Changes in sleep patterns, such as insomnia or oversleeping.
- Restlessness or agitation.
- Avoidance of social situations or activities.
- Procrastination or avoidance of tasks.
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
- Poor judgment or impulsivity.
- Increased irritability, anger, or frustration.
- Withdrawal from relationships or activities.
These behavioral symptoms can impact your relationships and professional performance. If you find yourself experiencing these symptoms, it's important to take a step back and assess the situation and seek professional support.
Emotional symptoms of stress
In addition to physical and behavioral symptoms, stress can also lead to a range of emotional symptoms. These symptoms can be challenging to deal with, so it’s important to seek support from friends, family, or mental health professionals if you are experiencing these symptoms.
- Anxiety: Feeling worried or on edge, experiencing racing thoughts, and having difficulty calming down.
- Depression: Feeling sad, hopeless, or disconnected from others, and experiencing a lack of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyable.
- Guilt: Feeling like you could have done more or made different decisions, even when you’ve done your best.
- Anger: Feeling frustrated, irritable, or short-tempered, and having difficulty controlling angry outbursts.
- Emotional exhaustion: Feeling drained, overwhelmed, or emotionally depleted, and having difficulty coping with day-to-day stressors.
- Compassion fatigue: Feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the suffering of animals and their owners, and experiencing a reduced ability to empathize with others.
- Burnout: Feeling a sense of exhaustion, cynicism, and detachment from work, and having a reduced sense of accomplishment or satisfaction in their job.
Coping strategies for stress
Managing stress is easier said than done. While thorough coping strategies are beyond the scope of this article, we have rounded up a few key tips you can use to better manage stress:
- Exercise: Regular physical activity can help reduce stress levels and improve overall health.
- Meditation: Mindful meditation can help reduce anxiety and improve mental clarity.
- Social support: Spending time with friends and family can provide a much-needed break from work stressors.
- Time management: Prioritizing tasks and managing your time effectively can help reduce stress levels.
- Mindfulness: Being present in the moment and focusing on your breath can help reduce stress and anxiety.
For more tips on how veterinary professionals can manage stress, check out these helpful resources:
- The science of meditation: A tool for managing stress in the veterinary industry.
- Sleep hygiene for veterinary professionals: 7 tips for catching better Zzzs.
- Improve focus and reduce stress with these 5 simple yoga poses.
- 6 ways to obtain peak performance daily.
- How do I avoid compassion fatigue? Top self-care tips for veterinary professionals.
Managing stress is essential for maintaining your health and wellbeing in the veterinary industry. By recognizing the symptoms of stress and implementing coping strategies, you can reduce your stress levels and improve your quality of life. Remember to prioritize your mental health and seek support when needed.
Need more mindfulness in your life? Check out Mindful May, an ezyVet initiative dedicated to promoting wellbeing and self-care in the veterinary industry.