Understanding the impact of chronic stress you and your pets
It feels like the general stress levels have ramped up since COVID. Contributors to stress in the Western world include a fast-paced culture, feeling the need to multitask, FOMO, lack of kindness and consideration for others. It’s magnified by our constant connectedness to our devices, overwhelming information, constant incoming bad news and current issues that affect us all like the economy or climate change.
Chronic stress leads to fatigue, reduced immunity, increased cortisol and increased inflammation, and can be associated with allergies, inflammatory bowel disease and cancer. Stress impacts pet carers dealing with their pet’s chronic illness or health challenges. Their stress may impact their pet’s emotional environment. Stress also impacts those working in the pet health industry, vet support staff and vets.
Causes of stress for animal health professionals include financial stress, long hours and poor work–life balance, and stressful interactions with clients or colleagues. End-of-life decision-making and euthanasia of pets is another significant source of stress.
Vets and vet support staff enter the industry because they are caring individuals and are interested in the wellbeing of animals. Compassion fatigue is common in workplaces where empathy and compassion are constantly needed.
The carers of pets diagnosed with significant illnesses like heart disease or cancer, or older pets whose quality of life may be diminishing, can suffer from anticipatory grief. This is when grieving begins before the loss but is more complex than just anticipating loss. Pet carers also worry about the quality of life of their pet and the timing of end-of-life decisions, as well as dealing with the stress and cost of vet visits and medications or treatments.
Your stress can impact the health of your pets.
I notice in consults that the anxiety of a dog or cat can increase as their carer becomes more stressed. As an animal health professional, I have to consider how my emotional state may affect my patients and their carers. A slow deep breath and a sip of camomile tea are more conducive to a relaxed consult than a double shot of caffeine.
Stress management and self-care
There are many resources for stress education these days — in fact, so many that the information overload itself can be overwhelming. Two concepts I use are self-awareness and self-care. Self-awareness is tuning in to your feelings, and recognising when you need to address them and when you may need to seek help.
I like the traffic light system. Green is going OK. Yellow is some signs of stress: short fuse with family or colleagues, poor sleep, not feeling you can take time out to look at the sunset. Red might be more persistent symptoms of stress, or a feeling that it doesn’t ever let go. Yellow is when you remind yourself of your self-care plan and check in again to see if it is helping.
Self-care is a series of strategies to refill yourself. These strategies include:
We can’t all dictate our specific work situation, but we can take small steps to address WLB. Take lunch breaks away from the desk. Simply stepping outside, no matter the weather, can flush stress from your brain cells. Allow yourself downtime at home for regular exercise, and spend time with family (including walking your dog) and friends.
Poor sleep quality can be a symptom of stress, but you can make things worse by not allowing enough time for sleep, or taking devices and connectedness to bed with you. Switch them off a good 30 minutes before bedtime to allow your brain to shut off.
Meaning and purpose
Find meaning perhaps through community groups connected by religion, spirituality or even your local dog-walking community. Set yourself some goals such as entering a sporting event. Embrace the activities that replenish you.
Mindfulness is defined by HealthDirect as focusing on the present, without judgement or distraction, and the practice of mindfulness can help reduce stress. It can be incorporated into meditation techniques. There are many websites and apps available describing mindfulness strategies. Incorporate your pet in one-on-one time where you are present with them, without the distraction of your phone. Play with them. Walk your dog mindfully. Give them a brush, or if they tolerate the smell massage with essential oils such as lavender oil (one drop in 20ml of carrier oil like jojoba or almond oil).
Diet and exercise
Diet and exercise are important for both you and your pet. Try to feed both of you a clean diet to reduce the chemical load. Find an exercise that works for both of you, but also make time for your own exercise.
Stress in your life will come and go, but you can use tools to help you navigate this, to help you with your work or with caring for your pets. And if we are in the red zone, then talk to your GP or another health professional, or seek out organisations like Beyond Blue or MyCompass by the Black Dog Institute for help. For specific help for grief or anxiety associated with pet care, see the blog at mettapets.info or restyourpaws.com.au, which offers pet loss grief counselling.