Veterinarians are wired and trained to care for their patients and clients, even in times of crisis. In the process of caring for others all the time, it’s no wonder they neglect themselves a little in the process, says Emily Byers, DVM, with Prestage Farms in Clinton, N.C.
“We work tirelessly as givers – givers of our time, emotional energy, advice and education,” Byers says. “That spout is constantly on and we get drained.”
At the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV) annual meeting in Atlanta, Ga., Byers opened up about her wellness journey during a session geared to encourage veterinarians to take notice of their own health. Her advice, however, fits all of agriculture.
“We have some problems as a culture and as a profession – it’s certainly not just swine veterinarians,” Byers says. “We neglect ourselves.”
What is often done in the name of giving fully to others may be rendering some veterinarians less productive and less effective.
“It’s a lack of self-care, a lack of self-love, self-empathy,” she says. “I know that sounds really soft and there may be people out there like ‘oh no, no, no.’ But if we really look at it, it doesn't necessarily have to revolve around mental well-being and emotional well-being. It also manifests in our physical health.”
Take Your Own Advice
Personal wellness and taking care of veterinarians are two topics gaining traction within the American Veterinary Medical Association and AASV. After all, Byers adds, how can you take care of others if you can’t take care of yourself?
According to AVMA, veterinarians have a moral obligation to focus on self-care and their own health. In March 2018, Byers realized that she had to make some changes in her life so she set out to improve her physical, social, mental and emotional health. In less than a year, she noticed major changes.
“As swine veterinarians, we always put sow farms or production systems under the microscope. Are they performing at peak capacity?” Byers asks. “But we don't do that for ourselves. We say the best medicine is good nutrition. But do we do that for ourselves?”
Trash In, Trash Out
When you are constantly running from client to client, time is precious and sitting down to a healthy, nutritious meal is not easy. Fast food, gas stations, no meals at all…it’s easy to get into a vicious cycle. Byers says the interaction between what we eat and how we feel is scientifically proven, however.
“What we're putting into our bodies actually has an effect on the gut microbiome, which has an effect on our brain,” she says. “Certain foods have effects on serotonin and dopamine and other hormones that interact with how our brain thinks. Remember, trash in, trash out.”
The first step is understanding this connection, but the most important step comes next – making the conscious commitment toward improvement.
Daily commitment is how you get past that vicious cycle, Byers says. It takes about three weeks to establish a routine and about 90 days to turn that routine into a habit.
“It takes a conscious effort,” she says. “It doesn’t happen as fast as we want – we always want it to happen yesterday. But when that ball starts rolling and you start feeling better, you actually become more productive.”
Overcome the Negativity Bias
According to researcher Randy Larsen on Pyscom, not only do negative events and experiences imprint more quickly, but they also linger longer than positive ones. This stickiness is known as positive-negative asymmetry or “the negativity bias.”
In other words, we are more likely to register an insult or negative event than we are to take in a compliment or recall details of a happy event. Negativity bias also causes people to dwell on something negative even if something positive is equally or more present in their life, Larsen said.
Overcoming that negativity bias isn’t easy, Byers adds.
“It does take a conscious effort of positive thinking, self-reflection, gratitude, whatever you want to call it. Over time, establishing that habit to rewire the brain to overcome that negativity bias is a big piece of the puzzle. It’s a big component of emotional wellness,” she says.
Where Do You Start?
Taking care of yourself doesn’t have to take an hour in the gym each day. It’s different for everybody, Byers says.
“Maybe it’s turning your phone off for 10 minutes, having the ability to stop and say ‘I need 10 minutes to take care of myself and get back on track. The world can wait, nothing is going to blow up in 10 minutes. But you've got to take that step,” she says.
Most people are supportive of these decisions, she adds. Realizing when the negativity is adding up and taking a minute to pause and distract your mind can make a big difference in how you handle a stressful situation.
“We're human. It doesn't mean you're never going to have negative thoughts or never feel depressed,” Byers says. “What it means is you don't let those feelings ruin your life. Don't let those feelings cause you to make bad decisions for your health.”
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