There is a lot of attention being paid these days to well-being in veterinary medicine. I think that’s terrific. I want to boost the signal and add my own spin to it. If you’re going to be successful in your career, you need to first take care of your body, mind, and spirit.
You know the refrain: sleep, eat well, get exercise. It’s a pretty short list. But many people fail at them, particularly in veterinary medicine. Oh, I almost forgot: don’t smoke, and drink not at all or in light moderation.
First, sleep. It can be tempting to sacrifice sleep for studying in vet school. My advice is to not do this. Don’t worry so much about studying and getting amazing grades (unless you plan to do a competitive residency). Worry about learning the material. Get sleep during the pre-clinical years of vet school; later on, clinics will make sleep a luxury. In internship and residency, you will put in long days and probably nights and probably weekends. Sleep when you can and realize that you may not get the sleep you need. Hopefully, the satisfaction from your chosen life path will balance out the months-years off your life the lack of sleep takes away.
Next, eating well. This can be truly problematic in medicine- we get free pizza at club meetings in vet school, clients give us sweets we eat in the hospital, and we are pressed for time so we are tempted to get fast food on the way home after a very long day. My trick was frozen foods. You can prepare meals for the week on the weekend and then keep them in the fridge or freezer. During my internship, I survived on noodles, frozen veggies, and frozen chicken that I tossed together. It was inexpensive and basically healthy. You’d be surprised how little time it takes to just toss some frozen veggies on the stovetop. There are also surprisingly good, healthy frozen meals these days, like Amy’s Kitchen. You can be feeding the cats, doing the laundry, and otherwise winding down for the day while the food cooks.
Exercise can be challenging because of time constraints. I have three suggestions: high-intensity interval training (aka Tabata), walking, and fun active hobbies. Tabata drills take 4 minutes and have been shown to be as effective as 30 minutes of cardiovascular training in cycling athletes. There’s no excuse not to bang out a Tabata drill every day. Walking is wonderful for your health. It’s low impact and I find it wonderfully calming. If you can walk to work, you kill two birds with one stone- inexpensive transportation and your exercise for the day! Finally, athletic hobbies are wonderful. Yoga, tennis, karate, dancing, ultimate frisbee- whatever it is, if it is fun to do, you are more likely to do it and it will be good for you.
Psychology is progressively evolving theories of how people become content and minimize psychological distress. As such, there are many theories and approaches to mental health. I will share my top three considerations: happiness, contentment, and motivation.
Happiness – There are three ways to pursue a happy life: hedonism, good life, and meaningful life. I’ve talked about these before, so won’t spend much time on them. In general, the good life and the meaningful life produce the best outcomes for happiness, with hedonism being the cherry on top. A simple summary: don’t think that things or even experiences will make you happy. Happiness comes from doing a good day’s work or helping others.
Contentment – Although modern Western culture is focused on happiness, other philosophies profess that the primary goal should be avoiding suffering. The ones with which I am familiar are Buddhism and Stoicism. Stoicism, since it is a philosophy, is compatible with any religion. The main principle is to minimize experiencing negative emotions and cultivating a sense of contentment. A Guide to the Good Life is the modern treatise on the subject and I think most people would benefit from enhancing their contentment.
Motivation – I love the theory of self-determination, which explores what motivates human beings. It holds that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are essential to motivation. Try to enhance these in your life as much as possible. For autonomy, try to see how you are making decisions that affect you- focus on your circle of control. Competence is developed by building skills, which you do throughout your veterinary training. Relatedness is your connection with others. In addition to improving motivation, social connectivity is one of the strongest predictors for longevity. So nurture those connections with Your People.
Although the spirit is non-corporeal, we have a surprising amount of data about what nurtures the spirit and contributes to well-being. Specifically, there is significant evidence for the benefits of meditation and spirituality.
Meditation – Since veterinarians are scientists, and we practice evidence-based medicine, we can’t ignore the mountain of evidence which supports the beneficial health effects of meditation. If you can make it part of your daily routine, all the better. Maybe after you have your coffee in the morning, or during your lunch break, or when you get home. Just do it, it helps.
Spirituality – There is also a lot of evidence that religious people live longer than non-religious people. So, for the atheists, Deists, Humanists, and agonistics out there, we’ll have to recover those lost months-years of longevity from changes in other parts of our life.
This is my spin on self-care. You don’t need to agree, although there is a lot of evidence for most of the points above in terms of happiness, contentment, and longevity. But the principle of autonomy indicates you can choose your own path. As you walk it, please, take care of yourself. You can’t be successful without a stable body, mind, and heart.