The Well-Being Buddy Blog

Your Prescription to Thrive! How Lifestyle Medicine Supports Mental Health for Veterinary Professionals

Did you know that walking for 20 minutes, three days per week has been shown to have similar antidepressant effects as some pharmaceutical interventions?!

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and place for medications for treating conditions like depression, but it does demonstrate the power of our lifestyle habits on our mental health! Lifestyle medicine is an underutilized specialty of medicine that is gaining traction due to the rising rates of chronic disease among our society. One of my driving forces behind bringing lifestyle medicine to veterinary medicine is because I’ve seen how simple shifts in adopting healthier lifestyle habits can have a significant, positive impact on our mental health. Does that mean a healthy lifestyle is the “cure” against burnout? In an ideal world – yes, it would be! However, you could be practicing all 6 lifestyle medicine habits and still be at risk of developing burnout because it is such a complex systemic and organizational issue.

What is Lifestyle Medicine?

Lifestyle medicine is a medical specialty that uses therapeutic lifestyle interventions as a primary modality to treat chronic conditions including, but not limited to, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.  Lifestyle medicine certified clinicians are trained to apply evidence-based, whole-person, prescriptive lifestyle change to treat and, when used intensively, often reverse such conditions. Applying the six pillars of lifestyle medicine—a whole food, plant-predominant eating pattern, physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substances and positive social connections—also provides effective prevention for these conditions. – American College of Lifestyle Medicine Website

Because chronic diseases and mental health concerns are on the rise, lifestyle medicine can be an effective way to address these risk factors to health and happiness. The interconnectedness of physical and mental health has been widely demonstrated through the comorbidities present with these health conditions: many people living with chronic disease also face challenges with their mental health, and people living with mental health diagnoses tend to struggle with adopting or maintaining health lifestyle habits. Bringing lifestyle medicine to veterinary medicine is a promising way to help equip veterinary professionals with additional personal resources to support their well-being among the occupational challenges you face.

Why is Lifestyle Medicine Important to the Veterinary Profession?

Veterinary professionals can give themselves an advantage in protecting against burnout by engaging in the 6 health promoting behaviors of lifestyle medicine. Research has demonstrated that engaging in these behaviors can act as a protective factor to burnout, support positive emotional states, and increase levels of psychological flourishing (Rippe, 2020; Lianov, 2021; Burke & Dunne, 2022)! Trust me – I understand that with your often chaotic schedules, it might feel like a challenge to prioritize healthy habits or like you don’t have enough time in the day to engage in healthy lifestyle choices. My hope for you reading this article is to take the pressure off yourself – focus on making small changes and how they make you feel over time!

Ways to Engage in Lifestyle Medicine Habits

Here are some quick tips for ways you can incorporate “mini-moments” of well-being into your day based on the pillars of lifestyle medicine:

  • PHYSICAL ACTIVITY: Take an activity “snack”! Instead of trying to create space in your schedule for a 20-60 minute workout, find some time today to take a few 30 second to 2 minute activity breaks – some movement is better than none, and moving our bodies has mood boosting benefits like reducing stress and increasing endorphins!
  • NUTRITION: Food feeds our mood – and when we enjoy fiber-filled foods it helps the health of our gut microbiome! Natural fiber is found in whole, plant-based foods and research has shown a higher intake of total dietary fiber is associated with lower risk of depression!
  • HEALTHY SLEEP: Sleep deprivation is a risk factor to the onset or exacerbation of mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. Creating a nightly wind-down routine can help you to decompress from the stress of your day and better prepare your brain and body to go to sleep! (My favorite thing to do is diffuse lavender essential oils while reading a book!)
  • STRESS MANAGEMENT: Unmanaged chronic stress is a risk factor and contributor to burnout, so it’s important to find where you can incorporate moments of stress relief throughout your day! Whether it is spending a few minutes outside getting some sunlight away from the fluorescents, or taking 3 deep breaths before and after every patient visit. More importantly, make sure you are taking your PTO when you can to promote stress recovery!
  • AVOIDANCE OF RISKY SUBSTANCES: Alcohol is a depressant and is often used as a stress reliever, but we could be engaging in high risk alcohol consumption without even knowing it! My go-to when I was working a toxic job was to enjoy a glass of wine after work – which eventually turned into two glasses, maybe three… According to leading health organizations, like the CDC and AHA, if you don’t drink alcohol – don’t start! If you choose to booze, then make sure you are aware of how much you’re consuming. Here are the standard drink sizes and low risk drinking guidelines:
    • Standard Drink Sizes:
      • 12 oz beer (5% alcohol)
      • 5 oz wine (12% alcohol)
      • 1.5 oz distilled spirits (40% alcohol)
    • Men: No more than 4 standard size drinks on any day; No more than 14 drinks in 7 days
    • Women: No more than 3 standard size drinks in any day; No more than 7 drinks in 7 days
  • POSITIVE SOCIAL CONNECTIONS: It’s important to create a support network that you can enjoy engaging with and turn to for support when you need it. Positive social connections have been demonstrated to act as a protective factor to conditions like burnout, compassion fatigue, anxiety, depression. 

If you’d like to learn more about each of these pillars of lifestyle medicine, join my free 7-Day Lifestyle Medicine Habit Challenge!

Prioritizing your health and well-being is a necessity, but it may feel overwhelming at times (especially if you try to change everything all at once!). Remember that even the smallest positive changes make a difference – it may not feel like it in the moment, but over time those small steps add up into a larger transformation! So in those moments of overwhelm, make sure to ask yourself:

What is the smallest, positive step I can take today?

Among the veterinary professionals I’ve worked with, I’ve seen a common theme of craving connection with others working in veterinary medicine who are passionate about what they do, but may be struggling to find realistic ways to cope with the occupational stressors and job demands regularly faced in their roles. One of the gaps we noticed was the scarcity of comprehensive well-being programming available to help veterinary professionals increase their level of personal resources, which can help buffer the impacts of burnout and improve mental health. That is why I am thrilled to share the launch of our Well-Being Buddies Membership, a groundbreaking initiative dedicated to supporting the well-being of veterinary professionals across the industry! Through educational resources, empowering activities, and engaging discussions, this membership provides you with an opportunity to develop changes in mindset, lifestyle, and behavior that support your health and performance!

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