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Working Through Winter

Winter can be challenging for many for a variety of reasons and connecting with others is a fantastic way of beating the winter blues. This is why our Campfire Chat on Working Through Winter was so important and meaningful as it gave us the opportunity to create our very own little community for the evening. As with our other Campfire Chats, it was brilliant to see so many people come together to engage in such an important topic.

Dr Claire Gillvray began the evening with an interesting statistic: 1/3 of us suffer from the winter blues and mood drops at this time of year. There are a number or psychological and physiological reasons behind this, but the good news is that there are many practical tips we can use to make the winter period that little bit easier.

Key discussion points in the Campfire Chat included:

Loneliness and the Importance of Community

Loneliness is tough any time of year but in the winter, this can be exacerbated. Reaching out can be tough but there’s always a community to be found whether that be in person or online. The chances are there will always be someone else who is feeling the same way as you so finding and connecting with those people can make you feel less alone.

Taking that first step is the hardest. If you go to a community group on your own and everyone knows each other it’s easy to start judging people and to assume they will be judging you, but 90% of life is turning up. Initially go for yourself and for the activity to take the pressure off connecting with new people, but overtime connections will form organically as you get to know people. It’s not just that first step which is hard but having the courage to keep taking those steps to form those new relationships.

Online communities can be a really great place to meet new people and form connections, especially if you work irregular hours or live in an isolated location where physical community can be hard to come by. There are plenty of groups out there so it’s worth keeping an eye out. These include veterinary specific online communities like Vets: Stay, Go, Diversify (VSGD), and non-veterinary ones such as Side by Side set up by the mental health charity, Mind.

There are many useful resources on loneliness and social isolation on The Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than just having the winter blues. It is a formal diagnosis which includes loss of functionality. Symptoms include social withdrawal, losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed, and a drop in energy levels. Research shows SAD may be genetic – you’re much more likely to suffer from it if it is prevalent in your family. We need to be careful to separate SAD from the winter blues. If you suspect you are suffering from SAD, you should contact your GP.

Listen to panellist Dr Claire Gillvray speak more about SAD in a WellVet webinar from last year which can be accessed here.

SAD Lamps can be useful in helping with SAD. SAD is caused partly by a lack of vitamin D, which we normally get from sunlight. Nothing can replace sunlight (which is roughly 20x stronger than SAD lamps) but SAD lamps are better than nothing as they can still be used to trigger the cortisol melatonin cycle which will help you to sleep better. It’s all about regulating your circadian rhythm and SAD lamps can help upsurge your internal body clock in the mornings. (Interesting study here).

Owning your mindset

When you’re in a difficult situation it can feel as if the whole world is against you, and it becomes easy to adopt a victim mentality. Naturally, this can lead to negative thought spirals.

The first stage in addressing this is to recognise when that victim voice appears in your head. Finding the positives in bad situations can sometimes be near on impossible, especially when working in extremely challenging circumstances, as our primordial brains are naturally programmed with negative bias.

Changing this negative bias is difficult but not impossible. Scientific research has proven that you can train your brain to balance out the negative bias in your brain to make you feel more positive about difficult situations. Regularly reciting positive self-affirmations, for example, have been proven to change the way our brains look and function. In the past, positive self-affirmations may have appeared wishy-washy, but they do work. (Self-Affirmation Improves Problem-Solving under Stress (plos.org), Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation (nih.gov)).

Back in the summer our panellist Mark gave a webinar on Managing Stress with the Right Brain which includes additional useful tips on reframing negative thoughts and avoiding victim mentality.

Mark also mentioned a book by Sean Acorn called The Happiness Advantage which also covers this. A summary of the book can be found here.

Find what works for you (self-appraisals and motivation)

Find something you enjoy and that will motivate you to get out of your own negative head space. If you find something you like, you’re much more likely to stick at it.

Having an activity to focus on outside of work and home life which is just for you can be hugely beneficial and can help prevent burnout.

Taking time to check in with yourself is also hugely important and different things work well for people at different times. One day that might be reading a chapter of a good book, another day it might mean taking a bracing winter walk or taking a bath. Some people respond well to healthy competition with friends and colleagues to motivate themselves whilst others might find that idea horrifying. Listen to your body and find what motivates you and what allows you to reset.

The Christmas period can be extremely challenging so remember that selfcare comes from self-empathy. Veterinary professionals are fantastic at being empathetic towards others with many giving up their family Christmases to look after their patients but can often find it hard to be empathetic towards themselves. Winter is highly challenging with reduced daylight hours, isolation and unwelcoming weather, but there is some good to be taken from every situation and pride in every achievement (even if it doesn’t always feel like it!) When we speculate about how others are thinking or feeling we are rarely right, so don’t be afraid to ask for help or reach out if you need support – you may end up helping that person as much as they will be helping you.

If you’re currently struggling with your mental health, Vetlife is there for you 24/7 and can be reached on: 0303 040 2551. The Samaritans also provide 24/7 support and can be reached on 116 123.

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Men’s Mental Health

According to Mental Health Foundation, in England around 1 in 8 men has a common mental health problem. However, these are only the cases which get reported. Research shows many cases go undiagnosed and unreported. This is why we wanted to mark the end of Men’s Mental Health month with this very important chat about breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health.

Some key points highlighted in the conversation included:

Starting conversations about mental health

It’s important to ask people more than just “how are you?”. This is because quite often people will say they’re fine, even if they’re not. It’s important to sit down with someone and have a proper conversation. We need to make it normal to talk about feelings from a young age. It’s also important to respect that some people will not feel comfortable talking face to face. Find out about people’s preferred modes of communication, be that phone, video call, email, text or in person. Everyone is different and we need to approach these conversations in an open, caring manner and be there to listen.

A useful article on How to Start a Conversation About Mental Health can be found here.

Tackling self-stigma

There are always going to be people who are better off or worse off than you are. Don’t put off getting help because you think there are people worse off than you. Mental health is personal, and someone else’s situation doesn’t make your struggles any less important.

Student Mental Health

According to a survey carried out by the Association of Veterinary Students, around 82% of students experience mental health or wellbeing issues within their studies. This makes student life hugely difficult so there is a need to have conversations about mental health early on in people’s careers so we can break down the stigma from the start. The wider profession needs to set an example for those entering the workforce, so the next generation can feel comfortable and confident talking about their mental health.

Language

The language we use when talking about mental health is hugely important. Phrases tend to be thrown about frivolously such as “Oh I’m really OCD today” or “It’s raining – I’m so depressed!”. It’s important to reflect on how we express our feelings as using these terms incorrectly to express a passing emotion can be hugely damaging for those experiencing these mental health problems. This is what’s referred to as a microaggression. It’s not the intent with which things are said that matters, but the way in which these comments are received.

(For more on microaggressions, visit the BVA website where you can find resources as part of their #GoodWorkplaces campaign)

Honesty, taking pride in emotion and shared experience

Being honest about how you’re feeling is really important and expressing emotion is healthy and natural. Emotions connect people and sharing your emotions and experiences with others creates strong bonds between people. If you are willing and able to share your experiences, then you never know how big the impact will be – you could help many others realise they’re not alone. However, it’s important to note that disclosing personal feelings and thoughts is a very personal decision and everyone is different – not everyone will want to share their feelings with everyone else and that’s completely fine.

Shame

Sometimes people feel ashamed to ask for help when they need it, and this is sadly associated with suicidality. We shouldn’t see shame as an internal problem that needs to be fixed, but rather as a systemic issue which has been created by society and workplace environments. As Makenzie Peterson from AVMA said in our symposium last week ‘Organisations can put in place whatever they want, but you can’t downward dog your way out of a bad boss’. (Recordings of all symposium sessions will be available on our website in the next few weeks).

We need role models who we can all look up to when it comes to mental health. Whether that be older colleagues, younger colleagues, friends or family. Role models come in all shapes and forms, and we all need to be able to learn from each other and support each other depending on where we are in our lives. This is why we need to work together to break down the mental health stigma and build each other up rather than using our emotions to tear each other down. So thank you once again for becoming a part of this vital conversation.

If you’re currently struggling with your mental health, Vetlife is there for you 24/7 and can be reached on: 0303 040 2551. The Samaritans also provide 24/7 support and can be reached on 116 123.

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Combatting Climate Change Anxiety

Climate change has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds this year. We’re constantly told about the physical dangers posed by climate change, but only recently has attention started to turn to the impact the climate crisis is having on people’s mental health. This is why we felt it was vital to run this session on Combating Climate Change Anxiety.

The chat began with panellists offering a definition of the term climate change anxiety – what it means, and the ways in which it can be defined. The panellists discussed the fact that climate change anxiety is known by several different names and can all mean different things to different people and can vary in intensity. Terms include eco-distress, environmental melancholia, eco-anxiety, and pre-traumatic stress disorder due to environmental threats.

The panel went on to discuss the ways in which we can combat this feeling of anxiety and what we can do both on an individual and collective level to improve the situation.

Key points included:

Balance staying engaged with self-care

You don’t have to be constantly engaged as this can lead to burnout. Often taking a break to do something you enjoy, will refuel you and prevent you from becoming disengaged. Don’t feel guilty for detaching once in a while.

Connect with likeminded individuals

A problem shared is a problem halved. There are lots of fantastic Facebook groups including panellist Alex’s The Sustainable Vet Nurse, and the Veterinary Sustainability Forum.

Vet Sustain has lots of useful resources for practical action.

Communication

Bringing up a conversation on climate change and environmental issues can be difficult. Sometimes just being heard or listening to others can really help with the conversations – especially when they are such emotive topics. Panellist Dr Catriona Mellor sign posted some useful climate communication toolkits which can be accessed via the following links:

  1. Positive Communication Toolkit – Conservation Optimism
  2. Six ways to change hearts and minds about climate change (onroadmedia.org.uk)

Shop local and support farmers

Imported food may be cheaper, but shopping local is a key way of reducing our carbon footprint. Farmers are part of the solution both in terms of animal welfare and sustainability, and wider stewardship of the countryside, and we need to work with them to continue to develop sustainable farming practices.

Feeling anxious shows you care

Being anxious, fearful, or worried is never a good thing, but it means you care.Caring makes you a bigger part of the solution than those who remain disinterested.

Be kind to yourself

Start small and build your way up. It’s often the little things that can make the biggest changes. You never know what impact you may be having.

A list of useful resources created with the help of our panellists can be found below::

General:

Activists and environmental accounts to follow on Instagram:

@mikaelaloach @jessicakleczka @envirobite @ayisha_sid @ninagualinga @climateincolour @greengirlleah @toritsui_ @vanessanakate @lizwathuti @intersectionalenvironmentalist @futureearth

If you’re currently struggling with your mental health, Vetlife is there for you 24/7 and can be reached on: 0303 040 2551. The Samaritans also provide 24/7 support and can be reached on 116 123