By Dr. Laura Smallwood, DVM, DACVIM (SAIM)

Chair, GVMA Resilience & Well-Being Committee

“We can complain because the rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because the thorns have roses.” — Alphonse Karr


Perception—how we see things, or don’t see them—is everything. As this quote suggests, two people can be confronted with the same set of circumstances, yet see the situation in quite different ways—mostly thorns, or mostly roses. Perceptions are fashioned at the interface of neuroanatomy and life, and what we pay attention to matters. When we pay attention to positive information and experiences, we are more likely to form positive perceptions. Alternatively, when we pay attention to negative information and experiences, we are more likely to form negative perceptions. Unfortunately, human attention bias is skewed toward the negative, so it is much easier to form negative perceptions than positive. This is why, when we return home from work, we are much more likely to recall what went wrong rather than what went right.

Wellness Interventions for Veterinarians

Over the past decade, there has been a growing emphasis on the need for wellness interventions within the veterinary profession with particular attention given to the risks for mental distress and suicide among veterinarians. While this is important and meaningful work that I support, I am concerned that an unfortunate byproduct of this emphasis has been to foster a perspective that veterinary work is inherently unsatisfying, unfulfilling, and even unhealthy. The authors of a 2015 Journal of Veterinary Medical Education article entitled “The Life of Meaning: A Model of the Positive Contribution to Well-Being from Veterinary Work” spoke to this concern when they posed this question: “As veterinary educators, we spend much time and effort teaching undergraduates how to be veterinarians—but do we spend enough time teaching them why to be veterinarians?”

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Preventative Self-Care

In particular, they raise the concern that an excessive focus on preventative self-care may be unintentionally fostering a negative work concept—fostering the perception for veterinary students that there is more negative than positive in the practice of veterinary medicine—paradoxically sensitizing students to mental distress and burnout. The authors suggest that in addition to teaching veterinary students about preventative self-care, we should also be engaging them in conversations around the ways that the practice of veterinary medicine can be meaningful and contribute to wellbeing. In particular they point out that a career in veterinary medicine:
• Provides ample opportunities for accomplishment and personal growth through using skills and knowledge to meet varied and complex challenges, and through opportunities for lifelong learning.
• Offers meaningful work through contributions both to human and animal welfare.
• Offers opportunities for belonging both in the context of care-giving teams, professional associations, and the wider community.

Focusing on What’s Right

This is perhaps a message for practicing veterinarians as well. Given the human mind’s propensity to form perspectives based on what’s wrong rather than what’s right, our default will be toward a negative perspective regarding our work unless we intentionally bring attention to what’s right. By bringing attention to that which supports personal and professional growth, the meaningfulness of the work we do, and the joy that comes from belonging and connection, we actually strengthen the neural networks of implicit memory that underlying a positive perspective of the work we do.

The Thorns Have Roses

A couple of years ago I was invited to join some friends at Poor Hendrix, a local restaurant. After I was seated, I heard a woman call out, “Dr. Smallwood!” I turned to see her scurrying over to our table and my first thought (perspective) was “Oh, no” (negative). As it turned out, she was the owner of the restaurant, the restaurant was named after her dog, her dog had been a patient of mine, and she wanted to thank me. Hendrix had been one of many patients over the course of many busy days filled with too many appointments, phone calls, procedures, and medical records. I’m quite sure I came home on those days feeling exhausted and disheartened but in that moment my perspective shifted. I was reminded of how important and meaningful the work we do as veterinarians is, and how it connects us to something much greater than ourselves. Negative feelings were replaced by joy and a sense of pride. In that moment, I rejoiced that the thorns had roses. This is the healing power of perspective. For more on Hendrix’s story visit . Cake, Bell, Bickley, and Bartram, The Life of Meaning: A Model of the Positive Contributions to Well-Being from Veterinary work, JVMD 43(3), 2015.

Spring GA Vet Magazine

Taken from the Spring 2021 Issue of the GVMA’s quarterly magazine, “The GA Vet.”