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Stress at work is not new, but among the many lessons that the past two years of pandemic life have highlighted is the need to develop healthy coping strategies.

This is especially true in the medical field where the stakes can be highest and grinding schedules can have a significant physical and emotional impact.

Compassion fatigue

For Krista Martin of Greenville M3 board, helping healthcare professionals cope with stress is central to her practice as a social worker. She is the only licensed counselor in the state specializing in veterinary social work.

With recent studies stating that suicide rates among veterinarians are up to three times higher than in the general population, Martin says stress in the field is pervasive but not negative at all levels. What that stress does to a person, whether in the medical field or any other field, comes down to whether the person has effective coping skills.

“At the end of the day, we’re not at our best under tremendous stress and pressure,” she says.

If stress at work is a reality in all professions, there is also a phenomenon called “compassion fatigue.” It is about the physical, emotional and psychological impact of helping others. The term entered the public consciousness at the height of the pandemic, as doctors and medical staff across the country were inundated with COVID-19 cases.

For medical professionals, especially veterinarians, there’s also something called “moral stress,” according to Martin. This is a situation where the person knows the solution or treatment for a problem, but is unable to provide it. For example, a veterinarian may recommend a necessary treatment for a pet, but the owner refuses, for whatever reason.

“The biggest difference with moral stress, moral distress, and compassion fatigue is that I can’t take a vacation to get away from it,” Martin says.

This is because at the root of compassion fatigue and moral distress, the person who suffers from it harms others. Martin says coping with this type of stress is much more difficult to manage, even for people with good coping skills.

Connection is key

Dealing with stress in a healthy way starts with developing these coping skills.

Healthy coping skills begin with an awareness and commitment to self-care, Martin says, coupled with cultivating a sense of connectedness.

“Humans are social creatures – even the most introverted among us,” she says. “If it’s OK to offer help, it must also be OK to accept help.”

One of the tools she uses to emphasize this idea to the clients and professional groups she addresses in her speaking engagements is what is known as the “healthy mind tray.”

Among the seven keys to maintaining a healthy mental and emotional state, spending time each day connecting with other people helps stimulate the relational circuitry of the brain.

Social connections are one of the main “mental nutrients” necessary for optimal mental health, aaccording Dr. Dan Siegelwho designed the Healthy Mind Tray in collaboration with Dr. David Rock, Executive Director of the NeuroLeadership Institutee.

Take stock

Martin says a key indicator of how well you handle stress and maintain healthy mental habits is how your body reacts. Taking stock of how your body feels physically can reveal the effects of stress and be a warning sign that you need to take action.

Here are some things to look for:

  • Muscle tension, especially around the neck and shoulders, is often a sign of mental and emotional stress.
  • Stomach or abdominal pain – what people often describe as “butterflies” or “jumpiness in the pit of the stomach”.
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
  • Constant feeling of fatigue.

“Asking for help is good”

The challenge is to deal with stress before it turns into a crisis, Martin says.

But if there are warning signs such as feeling overwhelmed, wanting to give up, or in the worst case, considering self-harm, it’s time to seek help immediately.

Unfortunately, many people still fear the stigma of seeking emotional and mental help.

“I think if we could normalize the need for help, it would go so far [to removing that stigma],” she says. “The same way I would need to call a plumber or a mechanic, it’s OK to need to call a therapist.”

The 7 Ingredients of a Healthy “Mental Plateau”

  • Focus Time – It is spent focusing on tasks in a goal-oriented manner.
  • Playtime – It’s about being playful, spontaneous and creative, especially to enjoy new experiences.
  • Connection time – This is the crucial act of developing and maintaining a social connection with others.
  • Physical time – Exercise isn’t just good for the body, it’s good for the mind and the emotions.
  • Time Spent — Introspection and reflection help the brain integrate feelings, thoughts, and experiences.
  • Downtown – Being bored is actually healthy and gives the brain a chance to relax and recharge.
  • Sleep time — Adequate rest is critical to the brain’s ability to recover from stress and consolidate learning.

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