16 Simple Stress Hacks for Veterinarians

Stress getting to you? Try these tips to achieve a better work-life balance.


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Originally published in the August 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Loved this article? Then subscribe today

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I’m no expert on the subject of maintaining any sane sort of work-life balance. In fact, most of my attempts might read more like Grimm-style cautionary tales than models for successful veterinary living. That’s probably because, like most of you, I consider myself a semi-slave to this glorious profession.

Indeed, there’s a reason why the twin maxims “living to work” and “working to live” seem synonymous to me. I like to call it “career-life dysmorphia syndrome,” a disease of the mind that centers on an inability to accurately perceive the boundary between the dual bodies that define our lives.

Despite my disorder (or is it a character flaw?), I remain an indefatigable seeker of this aforementioned equilibrium. Who wouldn’t want to feel perfectly poised between a profession that provides stimulation and sustenance and a private existence that’s both meaningful and restorative?

I do. Especially after the week I’ve had.

Two back-to-back IMTPs, a mysterious jaw fracture (long story) and a nasty vaccine reaction with a stubborn fever and a put-upon owner did nothing for my state of mind or body. Add that to my own dog’s dental abscess, my teenager’s SATs, my boyfriend’s 11 p.m. gigs and a $2,200 auto-repair bill on my 12-year-old car …

That’s what we call stress.

And stress is bad. It compromises our immune systems, shortens our life spans and makes us fat. Worst of all, it saps our sex drives … and heaven knows, that’s no fun!

By way of remedy, I can tell you what everyone else knows; that taking more time off, having more fun, exercising more effectively, eating healthier, bending like a yogi and meditating like a monk will help relieve your stress. But that’s not exactly helpful when we’re elbow-deep in entrails or worse –– surfing the crest of a bottomless stack of cranky client callbacks.

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Which is why I came up with what I hope will be a helpful list of simple hacks any veterinarian or staff member can deploy PRN to help achieve that elusive work-life balance thingie we all hear so much about but never quite seem to reach. Here goes:

Stress Hack No. 1: Stretch

I watched this TED Talk in which a social scientist revealed perhaps the simplest confidence hack ever: Stretch wide in a pose that typically denotes confidence (arms wide, stand tall and lean back for about 30 seconds or so).

This change in posture, theoretically, floods your circulation with confidence-boosting signals. When practiced in advance of stressful interactions (a job interview, for example), these gestures have been shown to improve attitude and performance.

Stress Hack No. 2: Get in earlier or leave later so you can schedule a longer mid-day break.

The Spanish do this for a reason. They believe the siesta is an indispensable stress hack. I do it not only because I like the flexibility it offers my work schedule (it makes fitting in a pyo or a blocked cat much less stressful), but also because I can fit in a nap if I’ve had a late night or I’m jet lagged, or I can eke in a workout, or I can relax at home with my dogs for an hour.

Stress Hack No. 3: Take a quick break outside the office.

Even if you can’t take a long lunch, you can leave the building. Take a walk around the block. Eat your sandwich outdoors. Force yourself. Your brain will thank you. And so will your practice. Not only will even the briefest change of scenery reset your brain so that you can be more productive, you’ll be way more fun to be around, too.

Stress Hack No. 4: Breathe deeply.

It’s sort of like stretching. Filling your lungs, opening up your ribcage and taking increasingly deep breaths is calming. You don’t need a whole yoga experience to get some of the benefits in just a few breaths. Ideally, you do this right before

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Stress Hack No. 5: Push-ups, jumping jacks and other simple calisthenics.

There’s a reason why some military academies offer space in the back of the room. They want sleepy, stressed-out students to get up and move if they’re not feeling productive. Twenty or 30 push-ups might be just the thing.

Stress Hack No. 6: Practice the five-finger gratitude hack.

I love this one. Count off five things you’re grateful for on one hand. Repeat at least once daily. Studies show that people who are grateful are happier and actually shop less. (I confess I need this hack more than most.)

Stress Hack No. 7: Apologize early and often.

Sounds stressful but nothing relieves the emotional hangover of an altercation like a heartfelt apology.

Stress Hack No. 8: Read something else.

Don’t pick up that journal. Not if you’re feeling stressed (when it’ll only make you feel like you haven’t been keeping up, like you don’t measure up, etc. etc.). Buy a random magazine or start a new novel.

Stress Hack No. 9: Get a new hobby –– immediately!

One new hobby a year can re-set your brain and re-engage you. I mean, you’ve always wanted to learn Hindu, haven’t you?

Stress Hack No. 10: Commit to a travel date and destination.

Committing to a travel date and destination is kind of like getting a new hobby. I don’t care if it’s as pedestrian as camping in your nearby state forest. Just commit so you can concentrate on something fun in your future.

Stress Hack No. 11: Eat something you never do –– right now!

The future’s fun to think about, but nothing beats enjoying yourself right now. When was the last time you had a Slurpee? Ever tried bubble tea? Buy an ice cream flavor you’ve never tasted. What are you waiting for? Take a break, and go to the corner store now!

Stress Hack No. 12: Modify your work style.

Order a new set of scrubs (I’m really into this new brand called Figs). Buy yourself a neon-colored stethoscope or a flower-patterned pair of clogs. Better yet, dye your hair pink like I did. No need to take yourself so seriously, is there?

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Stress Hack No. 13: Put on your earphones.

Just one song can change the direction of your day if you let it. Go to the bathroom if that’s what it takes to get the solitude that one awesome track demands.

Stress Hack No. 14: Change your soundtrack.

Speaking of music — change your radio station or mix up your playlist. You don’t have to do Mozart, but you might want to skip the death metal.

Stress Hack No. 15: Spruce up your indoor scenery.

Speaking of the bathroom — it might seem sad, but given that most of us have no private office (I don’t even have my own desk!), the bathroom may be our only private refuge at work. That’s why this otherwise-pedestrian place deserves more respect and attention than we’re likely to afford it –– preferably in the form of a makeover.

Add a new framed print, a delicious candle or a fuzzy pink toilet seat cover to sit on as you stretch, breathe and take in your tunes.

Stress Hack No. 16: Get back to your roots.

As Dr. Marty Becker likes to say, never forget to stop and smell the puppy breath. Truer words have never been spoken.

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