(Published in Fall 2020 West Coast Veterinary Journal)
I am going to let you in on a little secret. Until recently the word mindfulness along with any mention of “ashrams” or “mediation retreats” caused my mind to close with an annoying snap. I view myself as open-minded, inclusive and caring; a person willing to not only explore but also challenge my personal biases. Really Elaine? Open-minded? What an epic fail. When I re-read these words, I not only see the judgment, I feel it. It is a glaring reminder that each of us has blind spots; the inability to notice our own cognitive biases. Ways of working, thinking and reacting that are so deeply ingrained in our world view that we fail to recognize them in ourselves. Over the past year, studying leadership, culture and coaching I found myself plunged into some deep reflection, painfully revealing my so-called blind spots. I was not surprised to learn many of my core values are “doing values”. Courage, mentoring and caring are values I can lean into by “doing”. I have been thinking about why I struggle to embrace simply “being” and how my ego and self-worth have become so intricately linked with productivity, activity and action. It is high time I explored the benefits of incorporating both attention and intention (my definition of mindfulness) into my life as well as my leadership and coaching practice.
As veterinary professionals, we need to develop skills that allow us to navigate our increasingly complex world. The question, is how do we find time to fit these skills into an already overbooked schedule? I believe veterinary teams long to serve their clients and patients with wisdom, empathy and kindness while maintaining a degree of balance and care for their own wellbeing. The negative consequences of ignoring the effects of cumulative workplace stress, unrealistic client demands, unhealthy boundaries and toxic team cultures have been well documented. Too often the urgent needs of our patients and the non-stop demands of our clients mean we run from one task to the next with little time to think about our own needs let alone consider the impact this lack of mindfulness can have on those with whom we work and lead.
COVID-19 has changed our business landscape and impacted the culture of many organizations. As we adapt to this changing landscape, the demand for our services combined with workforce shortages will stretch our teams and make our practices busier than ever. Micropractices are intentional moments of mindfulness preformed in conjunction with other routines during your day. They, offer a simple, sustainable opportunity to introduce microdoses of self-care to a busy schedule. Best of all, anyone can learn these tools and quickly incorporate them into their daily routine. Tying micropractices to an existing activity embeds new habits, offering the opportunity to connect with one’s emotions, center one’s mind and body, and consider the kind of presence you want to bring into your next appointment, surgery or client interaction.
To begin incorporating mindfulness micropractices into your day, start by identifying activities that are regular or recurring events in your schedule. By tying micropractices or “wellness moments” to these daily events we have the opportunity to not only shift our own focus and mood but also affect the experience of those around us in a positive way. Any recurring event can serve as a cue for a wellness self-check-in:
- As you wait for your morning coffee or tea to brew
- While you pack your child’s lunch box
- As you wait at a red light on the way to work
- While you scrub for surgery
- Before you grab the chart and walk into the exam room
- As you wait for your team to assemble and start morning rounds
- During your commute home as you shift from work to home life
Veterinary teams are presented with a continuous stream of external and internal stimuli to which our sympathetic nervous systems are programmed to react. Learning how to create a space between a stimulus and your reaction allows you to buffer your emotional reaction and shift to an intentional response. Learning how to pay attention to your emotions, and become more intentional in the moment, is a skill anyone can learn. This process is unique to each of us so take the time to test and discover tools that resonate with you.
Name it and tame it
Acknowledging and naming our emotional state is the first step in developing self-awareness and self-management. The cognitive process of recognizing what you are feeling and naming it shifts brain activity from the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain to the prefrontal cortex, the higher-order thinking part of the brain. This shift acts as a reset button, bringing a new awareness and a sense of calm. Effectively moving you from a place of reaction to one of reflection.
Diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing) is thought to act by increasing parasympathetic activation with early studies showing an improvement in levels of salivary cortisol and blood pressure as well as self-reported stress levels by those who practice this technique. The technique can be used before making a difficult phone call, while waiting for your morning coffee to brew or even before entering the exam room.
Three good things
Another evidence-based practice that can benefit frazzled professionals is the act of writing down three things one is grateful for. This can be done daily or several times a week. It is a simple practice that has been shown to increase levels of well-being. Consider extending this practice into a group setting by starting morning rounds or team meetings by sharing “three good things” that team members identify or by giving “you’re awesome” kudos to a team member(s) who has gone above and beyond for patients, coworkers or clients. Our minds are biased to notice danger and risk. The practice of becoming intentional about where we place our focus and shifting our attention to notice the good things can restore balance, stimulate positive emotions, and build relationships among team members.
Learn to S.T.O.P.
An overbooked schedule, challenging cases and concerned owners can quickly push us into “overdrive” mode at work. Commit to learning how to reset during the day using a technique known as S.T.O.P.
Stop – Interrupt your “automatic pilot” mode to concentrate on the present moment.
Take – Take a breath or do some diaphragmatic breathing. Focus on bringing your attention to your breathing.
Observe – Observe the moment. How are you feeling (name it, tame it and let it go)? What do you need (are you hungry, thirsty or just need a moment to think)?
Process and Proceed – Reconnect with your surroundings. Communicate what you need to others and move forward with intention.
Intentional activity is one factor that can positively impact chronic happiness levels. By choosing where to focus our attention, becoming intentional about our response and learning how to attach micro-doses of mindfulness to recurring events in our day to day activities we can build new resources for our wellness toolbox. Having a robust set of tools to develop self-awareness and manage stress will be invaluable as veterinary teams continue to navigate the challenging and changing landscape ahead.
Fessell, D., & Cherniss, C. (2020). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and Beyond: Miecropractices for Burnout Prevention and Emotional Wellness. Journal of the American College of Radiology, 17(6). pp. 746-748.
Holowaychuk, M. (2017). A Mindful Life: A prescription for Wellness. Veterinary Team Brief, July 2017. pp 16-19.
Ma, X., Zi-Qi, Y., Zhu-Qing, G., Hong, Z., Nai-Yue, D., Yu-Tong, Sl, Gao-Xia, W., & You-Fa, L. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology. Volume 8. pp. 1-12.
Macivor, S., (2020). The 5 Core Emotions. Adapted from West, J. (2009) in Emotional Intelligence 2.0. TalentSmart, San Diego, CA.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.
Stoewen, D. (2016). Veterinary Happiness. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 57(5). pp. 539-41.