Mental Health and Wellness in the Veterinary Profession

When someone asks me, “What do you do?” and I tell them I’m a small animal veterinarian, their eyes brighten.  Then they proceed to tell me their favourite story about their pet.  I’m grateful that the public perception of veterinarians is so positive.

But underneath that happy veneer, many of my colleagues are suffering, often in silence.   I know because I’ve had my share of it.  This was confirmed when I attended the 2017 AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference and the 2015 Veterinary Wellness and Social Work Summit, read about it in an article by Dr. Debbie Stoewen, saw it posted in social media on Facebook sites like “Not One More Vet”, and discussed it at Mindfulness Meditation Retreats led by VIN’s Dr. Michele Gaspar.

Today is Bell’s “Let’s Talk” day, where the aim is to use social media and texting to increase the awareness of mental health & wellness.  A big part of it is decreasing the stigma of even mentioning it’s happening.  It’s a difficult subject but bringing it out in the open makes it easier to seek support when needed.

Although talk and awareness is good, I’m glad to be a part of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association 2017 Annual Conference, where the program includes wellness events.  It will be our second year, sponsored by Merial.  There’s yoga every morning with Denise Gilbert-Jeanes, RVT, RYT.  I’ll be leading Midday Mindfulness Meditation (breath-focused sitting, 15 minutes, in a chair) and evening Restorative yoga.  Staying well mentally requires to tools to do so and I hope that the veterinarians attending the conference take the chance to learn about this, just like they’re learning how to become better at their medical and business skills.

The Ontario Veterinary College is also helping the students address wellness by creating a one week elective course, which will include a yoga session.  Kudos to Dr. Colleen Best and her colleagues for developing this program and inviting me to teach yoga.  As someone who spends a lot of time with the thoughts in her head, getting in touch with my body has been a work-in-progress.  I’m a little better at it than I was in vet school but it requires regular attention to body sensations and breath, at work and at home.  My body is usually aware of my reactions to situations, before I can even think it!

So help me out today and share this post on Facebook, Twitter or by texting, using the hashtag #BellLetsTalk.  It makes a difference!

You are more tender than you know

I dreamt of meeting Jack Kornfield, in an alternate reality.  However, in the world of my dream, Jack was not Jack as he had come to be known.  He was still kind and gentle.  His mannerisms were the same.  But somehow, he didn’t have any idea he was a senior Buddhist meditation teacher.  Despite my insistence at who he was, he pleaded ignorance.  Instead, he repeated he was a merchant (I don’t even know what he was selling in my dream!).  I reminded this other Jack that he had met the Dalai Lama and many important spiritual leaders.  “Other Jack” shook his head and simply said no, that was not who he was.  I eventually left him, feeling disappointed I hadn”t found the person who had led me through a masterful week of mediation and storytelling.

I was drawn to a retreat at Kripalu in April 2016, led by Jack Kornfield and two of his senior teachers.  I’d read some of his books but hadn’t studied his work intensely. I knew enough to be curious about what else he might teach.

What I learned resonated with me so much I am still processing it, 6 months later.  I was especially drawn to the meditations called Big Sky Bell Meditation, Luminous Being, compassion and another one on lovingkindness.   I haven’t written about it until now because I feel limited in my ability to express what I am trying to integrate and internalize. The teachings have deeper meaning as I go through my everyday (small animal clinical practice, my mother-in-law’s death from cancer, my Mom’s recovery from acute kidney failure, building a house with my husband).  I find myself living Jack’s wisdom, as I go through each of these experiences.

I think my dream was telling me how time spent with Jack could only happen once.  Even if I went to see him speak again, it would not be the same.  He would not be the same.  Despite my insistence at who I thought he should be, Jack would have changed into someone else, in another time.  In actuality, it would be me that had changed, as well as my perception of him.

At the end of the week long retreat, Jack told us, “You are more tender than you know.  Give yourself time to reintegrate.”  Although an eager student for all his teachings so far, I dismissed this advice at first.

“I’m what?  No, not me!”, I thought.

I quickly realized the retreat had left me quite open-hearted and vulnerable.  The people who sat silently beside me in meditation were now my friends and I would miss them!  Swami Kripaku’s meditation garden felt exceptionally quiet and sacred as I walked about.  When I touched the oldest tree on the grounds of Kripalu, tears filled my eyes as I felt the sense of time and how long the Camperdown Elm had stood watch over her spot.  I was bewildered at this change but I didn’t fight it.  Gradually I let myself return to reality, forever touched by this experience.  Which is why it can never be repeated again.  Jack was who he was at that moment in time.  I was there to learn what he had to say then and only then.

What the Yin now?

YIN with Gwen Mondays 2016 REV 1

It’s been a year of change and growth for my yoga practice and classes.  (Still trying to figure it all out…)  Thanks to Integrative Healing Arts Studio for hosting my Monday night Yin classes this winter.  Grateful to those who continue to show up for a Yin practice and to listen to my stories. 🙂

Fortunately, the Monday night Yin tradition will continue for the summer of 2016, at a new location. I’ll be holding classes at the Pajama Angels Headquarters (yes, they are the Yoga 4 Hope organizers).  Click on the image (thanks Darlene for an awesome flyer!) to check out the details on Yin classes this summer.

$15 drop in fee // Monday, 7-8 pm // 452 Charles Street, Windsor, ON

June 3, 13, 20, 27 //  July 11, 18, 25 //  Aug 8, 15, 22

Classes are suitable for all levels (great for beginners just getting into yoga!).  Yin helps to:

slow down

lengthen fascia, tendons and ligaments

develop mindfulness and body awareness.

Partial proceeds from each drop-in fee will be donated to Yoga 4 Hope, to benefit local cancer research, those needing assistance as they journey through cancer and the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association.

Looking forward to playing in a new space, practicing with familiar faces, meeting newcomers and getting my yoga on!

For more information, you can email me at downwarddogdvm@gmail.com, message me on Facebook or catch me on Twitter (@DownwardDogDVM).

OVMA 2016 and the “Zen Zone”


Rolling through Southern Ontario, on the train to Toronto.  Enjoying the chance to relax and write as I travel to my final destination.  I’m heading up to Toronto for my annual veterinary conference.  It’s been a tradition for almost 19 years now and I look forward to it every time.

What’s different this year is the focus on wellness for veterinarians in their personal lives.  This has been an area of interest for the profession, especially of late.  The 2016 Ontario Veterinary Medical Association Conference is providing opportunities for mindfulness meditation at lunch time, along with morning and evening yoga sessions.  Merial Animal Health is sponsoring the event by creating a “Zen Zone” room where you can relax in a quiet space, giving away free mats to those who pre-registered for yoga, providing comfy couches for lounging and refreshment with lemon/cucumber-infused water.  How’s that for supporting wellness while we learn?  Awesome!

It’ll be the third year in which mindfulness meditation is offered at the conference and I’m grateful for the momentum that’s building.  There’s a theory stating it takes 100 monkeys to jump on board before the creation of a broader awareness leading to popularization of a new behaviour.  The first year, timing and advertising was limited and turnout was not as I hoped.  Last year, there were quite a few interested in the short, 15 minute sitting sessions.  This year, the meditation sessions will be a part of the “Zen Zone” event (thanks Patty!).  I encourage those who want to explore a short, breath-centered practice while sitting in a chair .  (If you’re at the OVMA, check out Twitter and use #ovma2016 for a daily reminder.)

For the first time, yoga is formally part of the conference program.  A colleague in veterinary industry is teaching the morning sessions, which are great to wake up the body and mind before a day of lectures.  I’m looking forward to attending her class.  The evening yoga is where I’m teaching a 30 minute Restorative practice, to help people wind down before going home.  As a type-A personality with an introvert tendency, I have learned how to go-go-go.  Eventually, there comes a point in time where I have to be quiet and reconnect to myself.  Restorative yoga allows me to practice my relaxation skills.  Everything gets better with repetition and relaxation can be learned.

A veterinarian’s work is about helping animals and their owners, with additional responsibilities if you specialize in large animals, academia, industry or public health.   Veterinarians are taught “how-to-do” these things with great skill and efficiency.  But along with that, we need to be taught how to rest our minds and bodies.  In this way, we sustain ourselves and the profession.

Mindfulness Meditation Retreat 2015

Nicole: You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kinda thinking it’s the other way around. You know, like the moment seizes us.

Mason: Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant – -the moment. It’s just… It’s like it’s always right now, you know?

Nicole: Yeah.

~Boyhood, 2014

Like a kid waiting for Christmas, I looked forward to being “seized by the moment”.  I was going to see my fellow veterinarians at the Mindfulness Meditation Retreat in Chicago.  Through initial introductions via the Veterinary Information Network, our cyberspace meetings become corporeal.  The names on the computer screen would have faces and voices!  I’d come to share a deep connection with those who had attended every year.  It was this sense of community that drew more newcomers to explore what the weekend was all about.

For the last four years, Dr. Michele Gaspar has organized the retreats in Chicago.  Her vision is to have veterinarians find healthier ways to manage with the work we do.  Sharing our stories was a large part of the time spent together.  The stage was set early by the 24 people that attended.  Many felt free to express their thoughts in this non-judgemental space.  Listening and talking helped us realize how we’re not alone in our daily struggles, as we seek to provide the best care for our patients and their owners.

We needed a different tool for skillful living so we explored how mindfulness meditation could help.  There was a big focus on developing a sitting, breath-centered practice.  This would be a better way to deal with the thoughts (worries, anxiety, stress, depression) than the behaviours we’d been using and which were no longer working for us.  Sitting and watching our thoughts would teach us to pause before reacting, observe how our thoughts were being generated (sometimes randomly) by our overactive minds and that we could eventually learn how to co-exist with uncomfortable thoughts.  We sat several times each morning and afternoon.  My experience, of repeatedly being still and quiet, helped to peel away the layers of tension I didn’t want to acknowledge or maybe even knew existed.

Through yoga, we also developed our mind-body awareness.  After spending most of my life living in my head, I knew how it could lead to a disconnect from my body.  I had the opportunity to teach a few basic classes and a chair yoga sequence during the weekend.  I did it with the intention of feeling the sensations in the body, in order to link breath with movement.  It was encouraging to introduce yoga to those that were new to it, as well practice with colleagues who had already discovered its benefits.  I tried to let people understand the yoga poses were nothing more than a physical manifestation.  We were the ones bringing our stories and interpretations along with us, onto the mat.

We’d just gotten comfortable with being in a group.  We shared meals, took a walk and had a chance to rest.  There was gelato, while watching a movie.  Before we knew it, our moments together had passed.  We’d have to wait another year before we could reconnect.  Knowing these people are out there, doing the best they can, is heart-warming and will continue to encourage me everyday.

Beer cap wisdom

“A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.” ~Roald Dahl

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Forget the wine…pass the beer!

Craft breweries are so much fun these days.  My favs are from “Flying Monkeys“.  Their specialty beers are totally amazing.  “The Matador” has hints of Spanish oak and other spices.  The beers are even better because the caps hide a secret message.

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The rich chocolate stout flavours in “The Chocolate Manifesto” were part of my cupcake adventures on Valentine’s Day.  The Apricot Almond version didn’t have any beer in them but it’s good to have the Yin to balance the Yang.  🙂

Beer and cupcakes rock!

 

 

Making Space for Silence

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There’s so much external noise, sometimes it’s hard to hear myself think.  Lately, I’ve been trying to make some space.

Starting the Midday Mindfulness Meditation at the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association Conference was a step in that direction.   Continue reading

Mindfulness Meditation at OVC

My life decisions over the last five years are taking me places I never expected to go.  Introducing mindfulness meditation to the students at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) is definitely one of those.

Continue reading