June 5, 2020
This post was written in the days before the details of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers became the flashpoint for widespread civil unrest over racial injustice. As a result, the anguish, anger and trauma that are palpable for so many folks right now are not reflected in this post. The urgency and importance of this situation do not go unnoticed, though — and we must acknowledge the painful realities of the multiple crises facing us at this time. If it feels like too much, that’s because it is. And yet I encourage you to engage the collective conversation about what it means to be human and humane, to bear witness to one another in our wholeness and our brokenness, and how to heal when trust has neither been granted nor afforded to those labeled as ‘Other.’
Please be safe. Listen deeply. Stand in your strength when you are able; rest and reach for support when you are not. And above all else, be kind — to others, to yourself.
In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, VETgirl’s Chief Happiness Officer, Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, clinical veterinary social worker, discusses how we veterinary professionals can prepare for the “long race” and survive everything right now. If you feeling like you’re running on fumes, learn how to adjust for the long race in this VETgirl blog.
A colleague and I have been talking a lot lately about exhaustion – not just the kind that comes from too much to do with too little energy, but the kind of vital exhaustion that comes from prolonged exposure to high levels of stress and distress. I bet many of us are feeling something akin to the kind of exhaustion endurance runners experience at toward the end of a race, when every fiber of their being is screaming for rest and recovery but there are still miles left to complete. Yes, endurance can be built – but it also has its limits, and many folks have hit the proverbial wall thanks to a combination of COVID-19, community trauma and grief, and a heaping dose of sociopolitical polarization. On the best of days, our best selves may be limping toward the nearest mile marker on fumes.
Any of these things are enough, in and of themselves, to cause irritability, anxiety, despair, and a smattering of stress-related symptoms. Together, though, they are a powerful and potentially toxic cocktail. The first flush of any crisis can inspire action, mobilize energy and resources, and actually push people forward… but we are months into a pandemic and there’s no discernable end in sight. For us to stay the course, as practitioners and humans, will require significant attention to the long race.
What can be done to improve your long race? Here are a few ideas:
1. Obey your biology, dear human. Most of us don’t realize just how exhausted we are, and just how fraught our daily lives have become, until pain is registering in multiple systems: our personal interactions are strained, our bodies ache, our work relationships have become distant or draining. Interestingly, the brain has no pain fibers, so it manifests pain as confusion, inattention, emotional lability, and cognitive overwhelm. When your biology is giving you data, I implore you to stop what you’re doing and listen with compassion. Identify the pain points and give to yourself just a bit more of what you so desperately need: a moment to reflect, a stretch, a nap, a long drink of water, a balanced meal, a hug.
2. Feel the feels (all of them). Recognizing that emotions are part of our complex regulation system makes them a little bit less daunting to work with. Emotions are data that carry the energy of action tendency – nothing more, nothing less. So, when we are struggling with the darker side of our emotional experience, it can be powerful to just name it and feel it. Allow the grief, the rage, the fear to wash over you – but resist the urge to grip. Watching our own emotions rise, fall, and recede is a tool from the mindfulness toolbox that reminds us that most experiences and situations are impermanent, and we always have a choice in our response. Feel the feeling, then ask it what it wants you to both know and do.
3. Stop trying to make sense out of senseless things. It’s a waste of energy , and periods of prolonged distress require energy conservation. Some things are just awful and confusing and downright unfair. Resist the impulse to wind yourself around senseless things you cannot control – a skill otherwise called radical acceptance — and proceed to #4.
4. Do something that increases your sense of control. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. And all of us can do something. All of us. This isn’t a time for perfection and overachievement, though – it’s a time for realistic action rooted in your values, your skills, and your personal ethic of care. Focus on righting your own ship in order to restore your sense of power and agency; from there, you are in a better position to contribute wise and aligned action directed at serving others who need you.
5. Remember: where there is meaning, there is hope. Exercise physiologists often note that pain is a signal of tissue breakdown, and this breakdown is the precursor to building stronger tissue. Sometimes, though, the strongest tissue is born of injuries we would never choose. Henry Rollins, the former lead singer of the punk band Black Flag and oft-quoted contemporary writer, once said, “Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue. Realize the strength, move on.” Allowing struggles to strengthen us in a meaningful way is called resilience. Let’s choose that path in whatever way we can. Let’s move forward with hope, one step at a time.