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Dogs, Cats, Coworkers, Clients, and……. Anxiety?

Anxiety Disorders in Veterinary Medicine: A Personal Account and Perspective

My alarm goes off at 6:15 am. The start of another day. My mind started running a marathon long before my feet ever hit the floor. The worries are immediate and sometimes, all consuming. Did I give the correct medication, did I give the correct amount, do my coworkers think I am incompetent, am I incompetent, did I talk about the correct things with that client, I wonder how that patient’s night went, and so on.

Do I know the answers to most of these questions; yes. I know I gave the correct medication and the correct amount; I know I went over the right things with that client I talked with, I know my coworkers think a lot of me. The issue is that even though I can prove to myself that the answer to these questions are positive, the doubts still creep in. Sometimes the voice of doubt and worry is much louder than my confident and experienced voice.

I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a disorder characterized by unrealistic or excessive anxiety about two or more aspects of life (work, social relationships, financial matters, etc), often accompanied by symptoms such as palpitations, shortness of breath, or dizziness.’

I am not the only person that experiences these all-consuming worries.

It is time that we talk openly about the struggles that many veterinary professionals face, including anxiety.

The Prevalence of Anxiety Disorders in Veterinary Medicine

We all come into veterinary medicine, in some respects as similar people. We are all highly empathetic, compassionate, driven, intellectual, and service orientated. We hold ourselves to a very high (sometimes unrealistic) standard. The expectations we place upon ourselves are frequently anxiety provoking on their own.

We can: Help this family; identify and treat this illness, Successfully perform this highrisk anesthesia, save this life. These are extraordinary pressures.

The identification of anxiety is becoming significantly more prevalent in veterinary medicine. A study conducted with more than 500 Veterinarians indicated the following:

  • 67% has or have experienced a period of depression, 37% of which met the requirements for clinical depression
  • 47% had a personal history of depression, anxiety, or substance abuse 
  • 25% were taking medication for diagnosed depression or anxiety
  • 5% had contemplated suicide


These are staggering numbers which easily prove that the conversation around anxiety and depression must be happening.

The Effects of Anxiety Disorders

The effects of anxiety disorders can be significant. Many people with anxiety disorders are high-achieving, busy, and highly effective in both their professional and personal lives. This outside appearance covers overwhelming fear of letting others down, making mistakes, being a burden to a team, and many other fears. These worries are often disproportionate to the actual event causing the fear. Because these people typically mask the worries well and are highly effective, people think there is nothing wrong with them.

When the worry sneaks out, it displays itself to observant people in small ways. For example: Chronic double-checking, biting nails, busyness, excited chatter, and seeking approval. On a whole however, people experiencing anxiety do not appear the way we expect them to. Then to make matters worse, these individuals rarely permit themselves to seek help.

It is a dreadful vicious cycle sometimes resulting in an inability to try to take on certain tasks as the fear associated with it is just too much (even though the individual may be fully capable of the task).

To go home at the end of the day with these anxious thoughts still in your head are damaging even if we mask them and carry on as if nothing is wrong. If we are not dealing with the anxiety (and/or depression) appropriately it can increase risk of suicide. ‘Depression (Harris and Barraclough 1997), anxiety (Sareen and others 2005) and comorbid depression and anxiety (Sareen and others 2005, Hawgood and De Leo 2008) amplify the risk of suicide and suicidal behaviours. The current study provides evidence that these disorders may play a role in the elevated suicide rate among the veterinary profession.’

Supports for Mental Health Including Anxiety Disorders

Fortunately, we are now living in a time when people are ready to talk about these sorts of issues. The supports available are becoming better and better. If you, or someone you know, is having mental health struggles (including anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, etc) please reach out.

Some readily accessible resources are (but not limited to):

  • National Crisis Hotlines (including; Crisis Services Canada, Centre for Suicide Prevention)
  • National Resources for Information about Mental Illness (including; Bell Let’s Talk, Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Canadian Mental Health Association, Mental Health Commission, Mood Disorders Society of Canada, Canadian Psychological Association)


The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association is also providing numerous resources for veterinarians, technicians, and support staff. If you identify concerning behavior or changes of behavior in a colleague, talk to them. It is so important to simply ask someone if they are okay. You will likely not be able to help them on your own, but at least by opening a dialogue, you can encourage them to seek the help they need.

My Own Personal Journey

My own journey with anxiety is an ongoing one. I have good days and bad; some triggers I can talk myself through, and some I really struggle with.

At the end of the day, I accept that Generalized Anxiety Disorder is part of who I am. There are even days where I embrace it a bit and it can make me better. Better in ways in which I pay attention to small details or ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a disorder characterized by unrealistic or excessive anxiety about two or more aspects of life (work, social relationships, financial matters, etc), often accompanied by symptoms such as palpitations, shortness of breath, or dizziness.’ double-check drug draws or prescription labels.

There are some days when the nasty thoughts from anxiety creep in and get hold. Those days are challenging, but in getting through them I feel I am stronger for having had them.

I am a huge believer in accessing supports you need and having good supports in your life. I feel the best fi rst step in this journey with things like anxiety is identifying it. After we identify it, we can talk about it.

We can all walk a better path; One that is open and truthful. A path that is better for us, for our patients, and for our industry.

References


GillespieUpdated, C. (n.d.). 7 Silent Signs of High
Functioning Anxiety. Retrieved from www. thehealthy.com/mental-health/anxiety/high- 
functioning-aniexty/.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Definition of Generalized Anxiety Disorder by Lexico. (n.d.). 
Retrieved from www.lexico.com/en/ definition/generalized_anxiety_disorder

Svma.sk.ca. (2019). A Cross-Sectional Study of Mental Health and Well-Being and their Associations 
in the UK Veterinary Profession.
[online] Available at: svma.sk.ca/uploads/ pdf/Wellness_A%20cross-sectional%20study%20 
of%20mental%20health%20and%20well-being%20 and%20their%20associations%20in%20the%20 
UK%20Veterinary%20Profession.pdf

Larkin, M. (2016, April 13). Studies confirm poor well-being in veterinary professionals, students. 
Retrieved from www.avma.org/News/JA-
VMANews/Pages/160501c.aspx
 

About the Author: Amy Birchall

Originally from Halifax, NS, I Graduated the Olds College Veterinary Technology Program in 2003. For a few years after graduation I worked in rural mixed animal practice, then I started working at a small animal and exotics practice closer to Calgary. There I developed a love of small animal anesthesia and 
surgery.

In 2008, I started teaching back at Olds College. I continued my focus on small animal anesthesia  and surgery, with those areas being where I taught most frequently. In about 2012, my focus of  teaching changed somewhat to include small animal dentistry. I found myself in a significant  learning curve, but I truly loved focusing more on small animal dentistry. It was very rewarding 
work, both as a technician and as an educator.

In 2014, I moved back to Halifax to live closer to my family. In March of 2015, I started teaching  in Dalhousie University’s Veterinary Technology Program. At Dalhousie, I teach small animal anesthesia, emergency critical care nursing, pain management, and small animal dentistry. I teach in both lecture and hands-on learning environments.

I continue with my sincere passion for small animal dentistry. In December of 2017, I started with scil animal care company on a contractual basis teaching dental radiography techniques in clinics as requested.

Nothing makes me happier than having the opportunity to help make a complex process (like dental radiography) simpler for members of the veterinary medical team.

I currently live in Dartmouth, NS with my husband, 2 sons, and 3 cats. I also own a horse who 
resides in Shubenacadie, NS. I ride dressage in my spare time.