Stress is the name we give to our physical, mental and emotional response to pressure. Negative stress happens when the pressures seem to be beyond our ability to cope. Like many other responses, stress has evolved to protect us. The problem in our complex and sophisticated culture is that in most situations, neither fight nor flight offer a solution. We respond with a whole range of sensations (feeling sick, sweating), negative thoughts (“I’m a bad vet” “it must be my fault that client is angry…”) and feelings (anxiety, confusion, irritability etc).
When you are challenged at a level you can just handle, stress increases your sense of being alive, focused and full of energy. People deliberately put themselves in stressful situations in the course of playing sport, climbing, public speaking and so on. It’s when we feel that we have no control, no choices and we judge that the circumstances are beyond our capacity to handle that stress is experienced as negative and ultimately damaging.
- Stress can lead to physical problems, such as vulnerability to infection and conditions such as psoriasis
- Stress can alter our behaviour – we respond to others (anger, irritability, isolation, self harm) in ways which will diminish the personal and professional relationships which enhance our lives
- Causes of depression are different in different people. They can include current events, such as debt, client complaints, bullying – past events such as abusive parenting and even genetic susceptibility
What can you do to reduce your stress level?
You probably think it’s your own fault that you are stressed because you can’t cope with the high demands of your job. But the truth is, many people are suffering from high stress levels because they simply have too much to do and a veterinary career has many challenges.
Acknowledge your limits
If you have an unrealistically heavy workload, admitting that you can’t do it all is the first step towards getting the situation back under control. Thinking that working a bit longer or a bit harder will help you catch up is a fantasy in the long term.
One of the best ways to take control is to to get used to saying ‘no’ to those who keep piling the work on top of you, or at least to make sure they have more realistic expectations of you. If you don’t, the quality of your work could suffer and you could become so exhausted your health will be affected too.
After all, saying ‘no’ occasionally is much easier than having to deal with what happens when you say ‘yes’ all the time.
If you find this difficult to do, an assertiveness course may help.
Pick and prioritise
Choose the tasks that need your attention the most and try to accept the fact that the rest will be left undone, but don’t fall into the trap of doing the fastest and easiest things first so that you can tick them off your list.
Try using the Franklin-Covey method of prioritising. This involves marking each task as one of the following:
A: Urgent and important
B: Important but not urgent
C: Urgent but not important
D: Neither urgent or important
Then, concentrate on the A tasks before moving on to the Bs and Cs. If you’ve already accepted that you can’t possibly achieve everything on your list, then the D tasks are the ones you should leave undone. In time, you may learn to say ‘no’ to D-type tasks and only ‘yes’ to the A’s, B’s and C’s.
Try not to be tempted to dip in and out of tasks. Instead, work out the best order to complete tasks in the same priority category; do the most important task first and only move on to the next one when you’ve finished.
Be good to yourself
Working through without breaks is much more likely to affect your performance and productivity in a negative way, whereas taking just 20 minutes off for lunch and regular mini breaks can help make you feel refreshed and more focused. Try scheduling regular short breaks throughout your working day.
Ask for help
If you’re still weighed down by an impossible workload and drowning in deadlines, it’s time to ask for help. Your employer or manager may not even realise how much pressure you’re under, so don’t suffer in silence. Talking to them about the difficulties you’re experiencing is by no means admitting defeat – indeed, it’s usually far more useful than pretending everything’s fine when it’s not.
A call to Vetlife Helpline may also help you to decide on a strategy for dealing with your stress.
See also Self Care
David Bartram’s Coping with Stress PDF 245KB is an article from In-Practice magazine, on the mental wellbeing of the profession and how to improve it using the science of positive psychology.