Sarah Rae Murray is a writer, veterinary practice receptionist and an advocate for all animals.
It was a typical frenzied day for Dr. Marie Holowaychuk until an unexpected left hand turn sent her life in a new direction. Holowaychuk (DVM, DACVECC, CYT), a veterinary emergency and critical care specialist, had just returned from a conference and had a single day to squeeze in errands before leaving for her next engagement. After repairing a chip in her windshield took longer than expected, she rushed off to an appointment with a specialist. Her trajectory was altered in an instant when a driver making an illegal left turn collided with her vehicle.
The accident left Holowaychuk with injuries to mend and a car beyond repair, but the enduring impact was emotional. “It was a big wake up call for me. It really solidified the need to slow down, look after myself and take stock of my life,” she says. For Holowaychuk, taking stock meant pursuing certification as a yoga instructor. Not long into her training she realized that this practice could be a valuable tool in her profession. She has since become a strong advocate for wellness within the veterinary community.
The dialogue around mental health in the veterinary profession continues to grow and gain increasing attention. Recently, the conversation seems to have shifted slightly, from quoting grim statistics to proposing attainable remedies. One increasingly popular approach is found in the idea of connectivity; integrating wellness practices to connect with the self (body and mind), others and the natural world.
“We forget as care providers that without first taking care of ourselves, we are not going to have the capacity to continue to look after other people. We need to allow ourselves to feel fulfilled so that we can then turn around and bring our best self to work.” - Dr. Marie Holowaychuk
Holowaychuk, like many in the veterinary field, has personal experience with burnout and compassion fatigue. However, these terms are still often misunderstood. “It’s important to differentiate the two because we often use them interchangeably but they’re not,” she says. Burnout is directly related to our specific job, duties, or workload whereas compassion fatigue stems directly from our role as care providers. Despite their differences, Holowaychuk learned how wellness practices and self-care could be valuable in mitigating both.
Holowaychuk’s yoga teacher training proved to be a truly enlightening experience. “I had this epiphany that yoga, mindfulness and meditation have been so healing for me. They have really helped manage my mental health and expand my awareness of when those feelings of burnout are creeping up. I just had this strong desire to share that with other people.” This desire has manifested in the wellness retreats Holowaychuk guides. The retreats bring together veterinary professionals from various roles for a weekend of yoga, mindful meditation, burnout and compassion fatigue awareness, as well as self-care education.
Practitioners argue that yoga and meditation foster a meaningful connection to body and mind. This self-awareness has practical applications that can be significant for those working as compassionate caregivers, says Holowaychuk. “The whole idea of yoga is that we sit in that discomfort and we acknowledge the sensations and we breathe through it. We get through and nothing is permanent. If we can practice that on the mat, then I feel like that translates into how we cope with adversity in our everyday life.”
The ability to recognize, acknowledge and let go of stress and distress is key for veterinary care professionals. Self-care is absolutely paramount, says Holowaychuk, “We forget as care providers that without first taking care of ourselves, we are not going to have the capacity to continue to look after other people. We need to allow ourselves to feel fulfilled so that we can then turn around and bring our best self to work. (We need) to be able to bounce back after those difficult situations at work because they’re not going away.”
The whole veterinary team endures these difficult situations at work. Melissa Aspenlieder has worked as a Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT) for the past 7 years. Throughout the duration of her career, she has experienced burnout and compassion fatigue. While working in small animal emergency, she realized the powerful connection among the team. “We’re usually all going through it together because we are all feeling the same way, everyone is becoming burnt out. Then suddenly someone makes light of a moment, makes a joke or makes people start laughing, and turns it around. That helps. That’s what gets you through those kind of moments; when you’re doing it together and supporting each other,” she says.
Being a veterinary caregiver can feel isolating at times, especially outside of work. A 2016 Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association risk factor study found a correlation between psychological distress in veterinary professionals and a lack of social support. One of the key, underlying themes in this study is that support networks are critical for veterinary care professionals.
Aspenlieder has found that support in the common ground she shares with a close friend who works as a Registered Nurse. This relationship offers the comfort of connecting with someone who genuinely understands the difficulties in compassionate care without the complications of being a direct co-worker. “It’s nice when someone does understand and relates. You feel more connected and less alone.”
Aspenleider also keeps in touch with other veterinary professionals outside of her clinic, catching up over coffee or on a hike. The pinnacle of Aspenlieder’s personal wellness practices is hiking. Connecting with nature can be therapeutic and liberating, she says. “I decompress by going to the mountains and recharging on the weekend, by being outdoors. I find when I can get away I’m so much happier going back the next week. It’s good to work through and process things.”
There is an enormous body of evidence in psychology to support the mental health benefits of connecting with nature. Researchers found that the natural world enhances mood by inducing awe. Being in nature reminds us of how vast and complex this world is. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep things in perspective when you are feeling the weight of responsibility to continually give. Making the time to connect with important elements in your life is a way of giving the gift of caring back to yourself.
When Holowaychuk remembers her car accident, she is able to see the profound positive impact that emerged from a negative event. “It was a gift in hindsight,” she says. She was given the opportunity to reach inward to reconnect with herself and reach outward to support others. The most significant message of connectivity is that you are not alone, says Holowaychuk, “We all come with baggage. This effects all of us and I think that connecting helps to remove that stigma."