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Strategies to counteract distorted thinking

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Article

Chronic negative thinking at work can lead to several mental health struggles including burnout, compassion fatigue, and more, if left untreated

Nuthawut / stock.adobe.com

Nuthawut / stock.adobe.com

In veterinary medicine, diagnosing patients plays a crucial role in effective treatment. Putting a name to an animal’s symptoms can be the first step in coming up with a solution. This same principle can be applied to addressing your own mental health. Acknowledging and understanding your thoughts and feelings is the first step in the process of dealing with mental struggles. Validation of what you’re feeling can help with self-awareness and spark the need for an intervention in fostering a healthier mental state.

Genie Bishop, DVM, VHSC, senior scientific services veterinarian at Royal Canin Inc, spoke on the importance of focusing on healthy mental states in her session, “F is for Fatigue,” sponsored by Royal Canin at the 2024 Veterinary Meeting & Expo in Orlando, Florida.1 She explained that we often think of physical attributes when it comes to fatigue, however we can also experience mental fatigue in a similar way. Physical fatigue in veterinary medicine can come from being on your feet all day, carrying animals or other heavy loads, or getting on the floor with animals. But mental fatigue can happen when you have difficulty staying focused and/or you are feeling sleepy or exhausted throughout the day.

If this mental fatigue persists without any intervention, it can lead to larger issues like compassion fatigue and burnout. Bishop defined compassion fatigue as the exhaustion felt when learning about the suffering of others. This can come about after a single occurrence but can worsen after repeated exposure. Moral stress can come from compassion fatigue with the feeling of needing to save every suffering patient even if it comes to a point where there is nothing you can do. Bishop also explained that compassion fatigue can lead to burnout, which is chronic work-related stress leading to feelings of energy depletion, negative thoughts, and decreased job performance.

Distorting thinking

Perfectionism is a common trait for someone in the veterinary profession, according to Bishop. It is characterized by holding unrealistic expectations of yourself and others and can be correlated with increased levels of anxiety and depression. “It’s common in our profession because we had to be perfectionistic to make top grades, to compete, to get into veterinary school. Then we had to make good grades to get out of vet school. Then we had to sharpen our clinical skills so that we could achieve the best job offers. We are kind of prone to being perfectionistic,” Bishop said.

Some other cognitive distortions include:

  • Polarized thinking: Only seeing things as black or white or thinking something is a success or failure with no grey area or middle ground.
  • Magnification: Blowing an incident out of proportion.
  • Catastrophizing: Assuming the worst possible outcome will happen.
  • Filtering: Dismissing positive thoughts or successes and only focusing on the negative ones. Bishop stated, “Who do you focus on at the end of the day? All the happy people or the negative people? We tend, in mental filtering, to focus on the negative one, again, because we are perfectionists and we’re not happy unless we make everyone happy. But, that is another cognitive distortion.”
  • Mind reading: Assuming you know how the other person feels or they know how you feel without virtualizing it. This can cause avoidable miscommunications.
  • Fortune telling: Assuming you know the results of a situation before it’s even happened but acting on that perceived result. This can cause unnecessary work or prevent someone from taking action if the perceived result is a failure.
  • Fear of failure: Failure can make goals seem less attainable, it can distort your belief in your own abilities, and cause future self-sabotaging. “Nobody wants to be a failure. We all want to be good at what we do. But one mistake does not mean that you’re a failure. Or if a surgery isn’t perfect, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure. Consider it a learning opportunity because no one is perfect, and everyone is going to make a mistake,” Bishop said. “One of my jobs was teaching the IV catherization lab and I saw so many students psych themselves out because they would miss the vein the first time. So, the first time they failed, they would say, ‘I’m never going to master this,' or 'I’m not able to do this, I’m just no good at IV catheters.'”
    • Bishop’s advice for combatting a fear of failure includes practicing, using your support systems for help and guidance, and being easy on yourself and allowing yourself grace in the face of failure. She also shared an acronym for FEAR: False Expectations Appearing Real— in case that helps remind you to counteract these feelings.

Combatting distorted thinking and burnout

To combat burnout, Bishop suggested to make a list of things that are bothering you and write down some potential solutions. Just like diagnosing our feelings, sometimes writing down how we feel can help alleviate the stress and be the first step in working towards a resolution and more healthy mindsets.

Keeping healthy boundaries at work can help prevent stress from affecting your personal life. Remember to celebrate successes and good days. If needed, consider talking to someone outside of work, whether it’s a friend, family member, support group, professional counselor, or therapist. And most importantly, make time for self care. Bishop left attendees with a quote from educator and author, Joyce Sunada, “If you don’t make time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness.”

Reference

Bishop G. F is for fatigue. Presented at Veterinary Meeting & Expo; Orlando, Florida; January 13-17, 2024.

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