Building resilience: how to be your best self in veterinary medicine


James Barr, DVM, DACVECC, chief medical officer for BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital, shares strategies for building the inner strength needed to maintain high performance and wellbeing.

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Content submitted by BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital, a dvm360® Strategic Alliance Partner

Resilience may be defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. It is seen as a quality of someone succeeding against all odds and having the strength to battle through adversity. It is also a quality that most of us medical professionals continuously strive to be better at.

While stress can be a daily occurrence in the veterinary field and “rising above our adversities” is a seemingly impossible task, there are key factors that each of us can implement to become more resilient. These pro tips, which I have acquired as a veterinarian for over 20 years will allow you to quickly recover from daily hurdles and overcome negative forces in life—both at work and at home.

“One day you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through, and it will be someone else’s survival guide.”

—Brené Brown

Take time every day to look inward

Most of us are stronger and more resilient than we think. When you take a moment to pause and think about your day, you will be pretty shocked at how many obstacles you have overcome and how well you overcame them. When you sit down and reflect on these moments, you also give yourself the opportunity to learn about your response habits and triggers, how you approach uncontrollable circumstances, how your responses may affect others, and more. For most of us, there may not be “enough minutes in the day” to get to this moment of reflection, but it is important to try. Even if these few minutes need to be scheduled in, be sure to include them in your daily calendar. You will be amazed at how resilient you actually are, and knowing this offers you the confidence and skill to better take on challenges ahead.

Understand what cannot be controlled

As medical professionals, we believe we must have all the answers. For us, there is no in between; the patient can have an optimal or poor outcome, and we are the deliverers of their fate. While we are inherent problem solvers and it is important to identify the causes of a problem, we must also understand what can or cannot be controlled. If we spend too much time contemplating, or worse, fighting the issues and events at hand (most of which we have no control or influence over), our resilience will quickly fade. Our energy and our focus are better used elsewhere, so preserve your power and focus for the things that you can positively impact. It is a tough task, but when it is mastered, you will notice an overwhelming sense of acceptance that will trickle down into various aspects of your life.

Never stop learning about self-care

Most of us are naturally curious and yearn for continuous learning. Even if you have already prioritized self-care (exercising, meditation, etc.), it is good to revamp your interest in being your best self by attending well-being lectures, listening to podcasts, reading articles about compassion fatigue or burnout in veterinary medicine, or even talking to colleagues about techniques that work best for them. With the increased interest in mental health and well-being across the industry, most conferences now offer tracks focused on issues like resilience building, preventing compassion fatigue and burnout, handling difficult situations at work, and more. Take these opportunities to begin your path to a healthier life or build on the skillset you have already developed. Wellness techniques and tips are always evolving.

Learn to roll with the punches

A large part of being resilient is learning how to roll with the punches. Now, this does not mean you should not have a reaction or feel through some situations. This simply means to develop some grit and persevere. You can do this by practicing emotional awareness (or emotional intelligence). Having emotional awareness allows you to understand what you are feeling and why. This skill also allows you to better understand what other people are feeling, which helps you to respond appropriately to others and to better navigate challenging situations and cope with difficult emotions such as anger and fear.

To improve your emotional awareness:

  1. Try to avoid emotional impulses. Consider how your actions will affect others before responding.
  2. Utilize active listening skills. This includes paying attention, showing that you are listening, providing feedback, deferring judgement, and responding appropriately (clearly and calmly).
  3. Practice ways to maintain a positive attitude. This could include having something to look forward to either at work or after work, maintaining a gratitude journal, starting mornings “strong” by accomplishing put-off tasks, taking “real” breaks that uplift your spirit, etc.
  4. Practice self-awareness. Examine how you react in stressful situations and pause when needed. It is ok to take a moment to think about what you want to say before responding.
  5. Learn to take feedback well and take responsibility for your actions.

Leadership’s role in cultivating resilience

To build a resilient team, you need resilient leaders. This falls under the idea of leading by example. For a team to truly thrive, there needs to be unmistakable evidence that leadership is doing its part to cultivate a nontoxic, people-driven culture. To this end, practice leaders must promote open conversations amongst team members and allocate resources that support staff well-being. As much as it is important for each of us to prioritize our own self-care, leaders must prioritize their teams. Veterinary professionals must feel that their well-being is a priority and that hospital decisions are not solely motivated by profit—their opinions count, too.

If you are a leader, ask yourself:

  • Are there conversations and initiatives that actively demonstrate the core belief that Associate well-being matters?
  • Do values of respect and care for individual Associates show up in the practice? If so, how?

While veterinary medicine is filled with proverbial mountains to climb, and improving resilience is certainly no easy task, we all have the power to deescalate difficult situations and manage daily stress. Remember: Resilience is not something we are born with, but rather a skill we each develop and improve over time.

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