Veterinary wellness with Dave Shuey
Black and white headshot of Dave Shuey
Words by:
Dave Shuey — IndeVets Veterinarian Social Worker

Forward Is an Attitude, Not a Direction

A favorite song of mine contains the line, “he knows changes aren’t permanent, but change is.”

It rings true because change, in and of itself, is never permanent, but the fact change always occurs, IS. It will ALWAYS be a part of our lives. Everyone’s response to this reality will be different. In veterinary medicine, one’s ability to accept, adapt to, and move freely within a constantly changing environment is an attitude that develops over time and depends on supportive peers and mentors (Hammond, 2017). This attitude correlates with increased feelings of satisfaction in one’s work, personal resilience, and curiosity rather than fear of the unknown.

Two blogs ago we explored the need for rest to restore our ability to listen to ourselves. Last month, we looked at the distinction between being goal-oriented and being dedicated to a way of life. The common theme that threads those and our current discussion is change. This month, we play with the idea that even though change is scary  – physically, mentally and emotionally –  the way to resolve that fear is to step into it, to move toward the discomfort, so we might know the feelings of progress and success that we desire.

The trouble is progress is not linear precisely because the world and our responses to it are not completely predictable. As we saw in a previous blog, recovery and progress go in cycles, the growth that we hope for is not always visible. Sometimes it seems like we’re going backwards. Depending on a wide variety of internal and external factors, we might perceive change as a threat, freeze in our tracks or withdraw, and eventually feel like a failure. Or, we might feel a sense of curiosity and stimulation, and “have a go at it,” knowing that success is always accompanied by piles of failures. Neither of those two responses indicates a healthier person or a stronger character. These responses are largely out of our conscious control. It is possible, with practice, to make our response more conscious, and in greater alignment with our values.

The “forward” attitude, when we can access it, accepts the unpredictable nature of life, feels relatively safe enough to try new things, is not punished for failures, moves freely within the limitations of the situation, and gathers useful information when things don’t work.


Forward is “Yes”

A recently developed intervention in mental health, to help us move beyond this fear and uncertainty, is Acceptance and Commitment therapy, or ACT (Harris, 2006). The cognitive and practical aspects of ACT have proven promising in veterinary medicine as well (Spitznagel et al, 2022).

Its two core concepts are:

  1. Allowing scary, undesirable thoughts and feelings to exist.
  2. Acting based on our deeply held values despite the fear.

Think of it as a therapeutic approach based on the familiar aphorism, “feel the fear and do it anyway.” This approach embraces the dynamic balance between doing everything we can to calm the fear of change and acting in the face of it.

As mortal, self-reflective creatures, our human tendency is to imagine, often in vivid sensory detail, future outcomes of present problems that are both disastrous and unlikely. You’ve perhaps heard of terms like “catastrophizing,” or “assuming the worst possible outcome.” Cognitively, our brains are trying to prepare for the often-frightful unknown, to answer questions that have not even come up yet. But the more we ruminate on what outcome might happen, the more stuck we can feel, and the threat of perceived outcomes becomes larger and larger. This is a normal response to uncertainty. We’re not procrastinating, we’re trying to feel surer about things beyond our control before we act. Instead of fighting against these thought patterns, ACT works to help people become OK with the fact that that’s just what our brains do. But simply accepting our neurobiological reality is only half the story.

The practical aspects of ACT begin with learning to observe our brains’ activity as if from the outside. We work to create distance between what we’re thinking and feeling and what we know to be true of the present moment. In that distance lies the possibility for meaningful action that at least feels intentional. When we accept the natural tendency of our thoughts toward disaster, they no longer need to drive us. Our values, like self-improvement, professional success, or anything we can imagine that gives us a sense of our worth, become viable contenders among the many emotions and beliefs that motivate us or hold us back.

The rest, to be as brief as possible, is behavioral. A forward mindset ultimately grows out of physical action. At some point, one realizes that there is no magic mind trick, mantra, or affirmation that makes the right thing easier to do, or the new thing less scary, or the boring thing more interesting. We need to move our bodies even when we don’t know what we’re doing yet. If we have been lucky enough to have had supportive and nurturing teachers, supervisors and peers to reassure, guide, challenge, and encourage us in our faltering attempts, those early steps are easier. If not, we can start by valuing and teaching others to value the slow incremental change that breeds confidence. We can also advocate for and insist upon that approach in all aspects of training, management, self-improvement, and many other areas of life.


Forward is “Try”

As we work within ourselves and with each other, toward our individual or shared goals, a powerful idea from the world of horse training may prove helpful. Tom Dorrance, one of the revered masters of the art, has often been quoted as saying “look for the smallest change and the slightest try, and reward him [the horse] every time.” The meaning is clear; if a horse or any other sentient being feels rewarded and safe when it acts despite its fears, the fear itself can transform into curiosity, and bonds of trust and cooperation form. Curiosity becomes a powerful emotion to propel us forward and bring us together.

Susannah West Cord, equestrian life coach and writer, says this about horses and humans (see further reading):

“At its heart, forward is about openness and adaptability, embracing and nurturing an attitude of confidence and trust. A willingness to proceed evenly in the face of uncertainty, hazards and outright fear. Forward means to put one foot in front of the other no matter how tired, how awkward, how befuddled and off kilter we may feel. Doing what we can, with what we’ve got, from where we are, today. Being proactive in the face of confusion and indecision. Forward is about having and expressing what we call ‘try’.”

If we approach forward with a sense of innocent curiosity, no prejudgment, assumptions or determinations, the first step will always be much easier.

In the hard, messy, difficult and painful process of changing our lives toward greater alignment with our goals and values, we can realize that every tiny little “try” represents a fear overcome and reminds us that we can trust ‘forward’ as the answer.


Further Reading

ACT Resources

Susan West Cord’s Blog

Hammond, J., Hancock, J., Martin, M., Jamieson, S., & Mellor, D. (2017). Development of a new scale to measure ambiguity tolerance in veterinary students. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 44(1), 38-49.

Harris, R. (2006). Embracing your demons: An overview of acceptance and commitment therapy. Psychotherapy in Australia 12(4), 2-8

MB Spitznagel, A., Updegraff, M., Twohig, M., Carlson, M. & Fulkerson, C. (2022) Reducing occupational distress in veterinary medicine personnel with acceptance and commitment training: a pilot study, New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 70:6, 319-325.