Dr. Ken Shapiro, Ph.D., Executive Director, PSYETA
DEALING WITH STRESS
The signs of stress are all too familiar: negative outlook, irritability, angry outbursts, feelings of isolation, and insomnia. All of us have to deal with stress at times, but more serious problems arise when the stress is a regular part of a person’s workday. Chronic stress can lead to decreased productivity, loss of interest in work and other activities, and diminished ability to enjoy oneself under any circumstances. Instead of bouncing back from particularly stressful situations, a person is more vulnerable to them and, in fact, plays them over in his or her mind. Other possibilities are “burnout,” “compassion fatigue,” and substance addictions. Prolonged stress also may lead to various health problems as it takes its toll on the body’s ability to fight off disease.
To manage stress, first, identify the stressors–not just the major situations, like euthanasia, but the little incidents that get to you. Notice how you deal with them. Do you avoid or deny the situation? Do you laugh it off? Or do you confront stressful situations? Once you’ve identified your reaction, assess how well each of these works for you.
Second, identify people around you who can offer support, both on the job and at home. We recognize that lack of such support, particularly from family and intimates, is one of the stressors for people who work in the nonhuman animal community. But it is critical to have a couple of people whom you can talk to and whose advice you trust.
Consider direct solutions to stressful situations-rotate your tasks, change physical conditions at the shelter, obtain better skills at working with the public. Assess your lifestyle. Are you balancing time off with work? Are you able to enjoy yourself? Check that you are exercising, eating, and sleeping adequately. Being well-rested and in good shape adds to resilience and decreases emotional vulnerability. Have you got your priorities straight? Are you using your time off the way you really want to? Take a moment by yourself, quietly meditating or reading material that is inspirational for you.
Finally, take stock of your work. Regain the positives by reviewing incidents that show the good that you do, that remind you of the reasons you went into this work in the first place. Do this daily.
The ways this society deals with companion animals are far from satisfactory, and we don’t want to simply adapt better to implement those policies and practices and the attitudes that maintain them more effectively. It is important to distinguish between psychological changes, such as the changes that come through stress management, and institutional change. Better management of stress can be in the service of genuine institutional reform, as well as enhanced individual well-being.
Kenneth J. Shapiro, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Editor of Society and Animals and Coeditor of Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.
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