Veterinarians more likely to be neurotic than regular folks

February 20, 2019
Kristi Reimer Fender, News Channel Director

Kristi Reimer is editor of dvm360 magazine and news channel director for dvm360.com. Before taking over

dvm360, dvm360 April 2019, Volume 50, Issue 4

Well-being research explores personality traits in veterinary medicine; results revealed at WVC.

Elizabeth Strand, PhD, LCSW, director of veterinary social work and associate professor at the University of Tennessee, spoke this week at the Western Veterinary Convention (WVC) in Las Vegas about the “Big Five” personality traits and their prominence in the veterinary profession, as shown in the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study. This is the first time these particular results from the study have been revealed, Dr. Strand told her WVC audience.

Helpful terms

Here are some words Dr. Elizabeth Strand suggests getting familiar with in clinical discussions of well-being.

  • Alexithymia: Difficulty putting emotions into words
  • Emotional literacy: Ability to express emotions in just three words (“I feel … [fill in the blank]”)
  • Depressive realism: Tendency to see things as they actually are
  • Psychological flexibility: The six core processes of mental strength

The Big Five is an assessment tool used by clinical psychologists and researchers for exploring personality style, Dr. Strand says. “Personality” in a psychological context refers to individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, and Big Five research has shown these traits to be stable over long periods of time. Environmental factors don't seem to affect them much.

The Big Five personality traits-all of which have both positive and negative aspects, according to Dr. Strand-are:

  • Openness to experience: the ability to think creatively and to be innovative; a tendency to “wear your heart on your sleeve."
  • Agreeableness: how well you get along with others.
  • Conscientiousness: excellence in delaying gratification, working within rules, planning and organizing effectively.
  • Extraversion: drawing energy from interacting with others.
  • Neuroticism: being less confident and comfortable with oneself; a tendency to get “ruffled” easily.

The Merck well-being study found that veterinarians are significantly more likely to be neurotic than the general population, by a noteworthy margin. “Almost all the researchers commented on the difference in levels of neuroticism,” Dr. Strand says. They are also significantly less likely to be extraverted, open to experience and agreeable than the general population; they display about the same levels of conscientiousness.

While many of the attributes associated with neuroticism are “bummer words,” as Dr. Strand says, one positive trait is something called “depressive realism,” or a tendency to see things as they really are. “Neurotics tend to see things more realistically,” she says. “There is a risk of having an over-negative view, but in general neurotics have an advantage in this area.”

This trait can be particularly helpful in a medical professional, Dr. Strand continues. “What would you rather have in your own surgeon?” she asks. “Someone who sees things pessimistically or opimistically, or someone who sees what is actually real?”

Of course, some aspects of neuroticism are detrimental to well-being, Dr. Strand says. Emotional volatility and high reactivity to stress eventually take a toll. That's where mindfulness training comes in. “While you can't change the personality trait, you can change your behavior,” she says. You can learn coping skills, avoid substances (neurotics are more likely to experience substance-use disorders) and channel anxiety into a more productive outlet.

Specifically, veterinarians can work on their innate alexithymia, or difficulty putting emotions into words, by developing emotional literacy-the ability to say, “I feel angry!” instead of “What a jerk!” when someone behaves in an unpleasant way. “Research shows that the former response is better for brain,” Dr. Strand says.

The next step is to work on psychological flexibility and strength, which flow from the following behaviors and attitudes, Dr. Strand says:

  • Being present in the moment (a core approach to mindfulness in life.
  • Knowing your values (discovering what's important to you and making decisions accordingly)
  • Taking action (being willing to act on your values and not just react to circumstance)
  • Having self as context (seeing yourself as unchanged by time and experience)
  • Practicing defusion (the ability to have a thought but not be ruled by it)
  • Accepting what is (being willing to experience difficult thoughts and not seek to avoid or escape from them).

For those who need some practical tools that will help them work on mindfulness and mitigate neuroticism, Dr. Strand suggests the Insight Timer and Headspace apps. “Or you can participate in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class, which is the program that started it all,” she says. “Google it. It's an eight-week training course, and you can find one near you.”

Mindfulness tools

If you're interested in pursuing therapy or coaching to achieve greater well-being in your life, Dr. Elizabeth Strand suggest looking for counselors or programs that encompass the following schools of thought:

  • Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT)
  • Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive treatment
  • Compassion-focused approaches

To close her talk, Dr. Strand showed a picture of a nervous puppy at the top of a flight of stairs. “What would you say to this puppy?” she asked. “Would you get angry and yell at it, saying, ‘You stupid puppy! Why are you such a scaredy-pants?' Of course not. You'd never say that to the puppy, but that's what we say to ourselves.”

So exercise some self-compassion, Dr. Strand advises. Tell yourself it's OK; you can do it; it will get easier. “Be kind to yourself inside your own head,” she says. “This is even more important than mindfulness. I believe self-compassion is the next wave of well-being research, and you can start right now by activating your own caregiving system.”

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