Mindfulness: A prescription for better mental health
Mindfulness saved me. It saved me from leading a life in which I ignored the present moment and only looked toward the future. It saved me from leading a life in which I prioritized success in school rather than my overall well-being and neglected my mental health. Mindfulness has taught me to love myself through my successes and failures and I fully believe that we as future veterinarians can benefit from practicing it on a daily basis.
I believe that mindfulness can be defined as the practice of recognizing one’s thoughts without passing judgment on those thoughts. In other words, by paying attention to our inner voice, we become aware of the negative or positive self-talk that impacts our mental health on a daily basis. The key is to hear the voice in your head, be cognizant of the thought, and to let it go. For example, when you’re waiting in line for a coffee and all you can think is “I wish this line would move faster… After I get my coffee, I need to do x, y, and z before lunch and then I need to…” This ongoing list in your head, or what I call “mindless rumination,” can continue for the entire 15 minutes that you wait for your cappuccino. Instead of letting your mind run wild, you can use mindfulness to help pull you back to the present moment. Stop and smell the coffee! Smile at the person behind you. Close your eyes and think of something you are grateful for. These simple actions will make you feel less stressed, less rushed, and more alive.
In high-stress work environments, like a veterinary clinic, we often prioritize our job over our mental health. The pressure to be a perfect doctor or student pushes us further away from the present moment and more toward the future. While having goals is important, remaining mindful is more important so that we can still enjoy our present. The reality is that we will sometimes fall short of our personal expectations—we WILL make mistakes. In these moments, mindfulness helps us stay in check with reality rather than spiraling into negative self-talk. Have you ever felt so overwhelmed or filled with self-doubt that you thought about quitting? Mindfulness teaches us to recognize this negative self-talk, that way we can gain more perspective on our current situation and settle back into reality. The ‘mindless rumination’ no longer serves us! Right here, right now, we have something to be grateful for like our ability to read, our home that we return to each night, or our pets that greet us with a smile.
A life without mindfulness is dangerous because our negative self-talk eventually becomes detrimental to our self-confidence and our ability to perform as a student or doctor. I used to identify strongly with the grades I made in school and my self-worth was dependent on getting “the A.” Through practicing mindfulness, I realized that many of the conversations in my head were not healthy. I now believe that I am so much more than my marks and the qualities of being a well-rounded person will make me a great veterinarian. This mindset has taught me so much about myself and through practice, I have changed my inner dialogue from negative self-doubt to positive self-encouragement. Mindfulness has become a means of self-soothing so that failures and mishaps no longer hold me back from being happy.
As veterinarians, we are extremely susceptible to compassion fatigue and putting our patients’ lives before our own. In fact, our profession has the highest suicide rate out of any other profession (Tomasi et al 2019). The veterinary community must cultivate a supportive network around mental health awareness and promote overall well-being. Whether you start practicing mindfulness by meditating for five to 10 minutes a day or by simply noticing an unwanted train of thought in a stressful situation, mindfulness can help you lead a happier, more present life.
Tomasi, S. E., Fechter-Leggett, E. D., Edwards, N. T., Reddish, A. D., Crosby, A. E., & Nett, R. J. (2019). Suicide among veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 254(1), 104–112. doi: 10.2460/javma.254.1.104