Coping with Stress

It’s no secret that a veterinary career can be a stressful one but little is actually known about how vets cope. Some researchers believe that people have default coping mechanisms, whereas others suggest that we use different strategies in different situations. Over 400 ways of coping have been identified to date but it’s thought that vets may not be applying the appropriate mechanism to respond to the stressors they frequently encounter.1 The good news is that coping strategies can be learned and improved – two things that vets are excellent at.

What actually is ‘stress’?

Stress is defined as ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’. What constitutes an ‘adverse’ or ‘demanding’ situation is not so clearly defined as this is based on what matters to you. Situations that some find stressful may not impact on others in the slightest. Stress occurs when the demands experienced outweigh coping resources. ‘Coping’ involves thoughts and behaviours which seek to address the stressful situation. These might include attempts to minimise, tolerate or master the problem, for example.

Why do vets stress so much?

Is the nature of the job to blame in its entirety for the amount of stress that many vets seem to experience? Research suggests that top contributors to stress among vets are working hours, the fear of making professional mistakes and the possibility of client complaints or litigation. It’s also suggested that the characteristics of individuals entering the profession also play a part. Vets are naturally conscientious problem solvers and tend to try to do so beyond the point to which this is possible. So vets are likely to feel stressed if there doesn’t appear to be an adequate solution.

Do women suffer from stress more than men?

Exhausted female doctor.Research suggests that from early adolescence, women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men.2 This is thought to be, at least in part, due to differences in stress responses. But what does this mean for the veterinary profession? One New Zealand study suggests that female vets specifically are more prone to stress than their male counterparts.3 As the large majority of vets are women, it’s therefore perhaps not surprising that such high levels of stress are reported in the profession.

Problem vs emotion focussed

Coping strategies can be broadly categorised as problem- or emotion-focussed depending on whether they target the situation or the response to the situation. Examples of problem-focussed strategies include drawing up a pros and cons list, improving time management skills or seeking advice from others; whereas emotion-focussed strategies might include using humour, challenging your own negative thoughts or practising forgiveness.

In reality, most stressful situations are best managed with a combined approach. For example, if faced with redundancy, you may wish to initially work in emotion-centred manner to help process the situation rationally and then in a problem-centred way to plan your next steps.  Many vets may place too much emphasis on taking a problem-centred approach when the situation is actually not changeable. Instead, thinking about ways in which you can alter your emotional response could be far more fruitful.

Adaptive or maladaptive?

Often it’s tempting to just avoid the problem or to be overly critical of oneself for having not solved the problem – both of which being common maladaptive responses. While a maladaptive response may help in the short-term, it usually makes things worse in the long run and can ultimately lead to physical and mental distress. Adaptive responses, on the other hand, help to reduce stress and promote lasting benefits. These might include proactive techniques such as anticipating how you are going to deal with the situation or social coping techniques such as seeking support from others.

Cultivating your coping mechanisms

Coping is a skill, which, like all skills can be learned, practised and improved. In fact, coping effectiveness training (CET) is a formally recognised technique which has been found to be useful in modifying coping strategies and improving the outcome. The first steps to effective coping include accurately identifying potential stressors and successfully assessing the stressful situation.4 Only then can you implement an effective coping strategy.

  • Think small. Rather than thinking in terms of general stressors such ‘my job’ or ‘my family’, specific causes of stress need to be identified. This means taking a step back and asking yourself, ‘what it is about my job that is actually causing the problem?’ This could be a client complaint, or a relationship with a colleague. It may not even become obvious until you actually evaluate it and delve a little deeper.
  • Break it down. Once you’ve successfully identified the stressor, you need to break it down into its aggregate components. For example, a bad relationship with a colleague may actually occur because the person in question has not had enough sleep the night before their shift or a feeling that you are not adequately supported at work. These specific components are then much easier to address than the problem as a whole.
  • Accept the unchangeable. Once you’ve identified specific stressors, you need to decide what is changeable and what is not – as the two situations will require different responses. Emotion-focussed responses are suitable for situations beyond our control, which is something that vets tend to be less good at than focussing on addressing the problem. Things such as time-pressures and tricky clients are inevitable and focussing on your response to the situation is likely to be the best solution.
  • Evaluate yourself. By thinking about how you usually approach a stressful situation, it’s likely that you will identify a regular pattern. The key is to try to increase your repertoire of coping strategies so you have a suitable response for every stressful situation. It’s likely that the best approach will be a balanced one involving a range of coping strategies.

Of the two key aspects involved in coping with stress – addressing the problem and regulating the emotional response – it’s the latter that vets often have to work harder on. Does this sound familiar? Do you have one ‘go-to’ coping mechanism or perhaps a range of default responses?

How about the main causes of stress – is it long working days that are at the heart of your worries or do you get anxious about making a professional mistake? We all suffer with stress in one form or another and it’s likely that many of us share the same stressors, so please share your experiences in the comments section below – you never know how sharing might help others.

  1. WILLIAMS, S. M., ARNOLD, P. K. & MILLS, J. N. (2005) Coping with stress: a survey of Murdoch University veterinary students. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education 32, 201-212
  2. Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan. “Gender differences in depression.” Current directions in psychological science5 (2001): 173-176.
  3. Gardner, D. H., & Hini, D. (2006). Work-related stress in the veterinary profession in New Zealand. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 54(3), 119-124.
  4. Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Weintraub, J. K. (1989). Assessing coping strategies: a theoretically based approach. Journal of personality and social psychology, 56(2), 267.