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April 28, 2022

Life Boost with Dr. Amelia: How to recognize and manage your stress response

Dr. Amelia Knight

Words by:

Amelia Knight — Associate IndeVet

In Life Boost with Dr. Amelia, health coach Dr. Amelia Knight shares tips to lead a happier and healthier life as a veterinarian.

This is the final post in her series on applying Fear Free techniques in your own life to minimize stress and make a healthy lifestyle a more enjoyable, less intimidating experience. Missed the first two posts? Read up on tips for Fear Free morning routines, or find out how to make the absolute worst totally tolerable.

As veterinarians, we are all too familiar with stress. Despite our love for animals, the warm and fuzzy feeling we have for our patients isn’t always mutual.

It used to be the norm to respond to stressed out patients with heavy restraint while largely ignoring their signs of fear, but thankfully we’re starting to embrace a gentler approach. Our profession is recognizing the importance of Fear Free techniques in order to improve the health and well-being of our patients. The next step is starting to acknowledge and prioritize managing stress in our own lives and the veterinary community.

When an animal or human perceives or anticipates a threat, it triggers a stress response. That response is an automatic, normal protective mechanism to stay safe. Recognizing these signs of fear and stress is a critical first step in order to implement appropriate Fear Free techniques to create a positive experience for the patient.

Recognizing signs of stress may seem obvious, but that’s not always the case! Owners frequently misinterpret signs of fear, anxiety, and stress in their pets. A dog rolling over and showing their belly is mistaken for an invitation for a belly rub instead of fearful sign to “please leave me alone”. The dog nervously bouncing around the room unable to listen to any commands is thought to “love being here”. You’ve been taught to accurately interpret these signs of stress and fear in your patients, but what about in your own life?

When you don’t recognize that your own behaviors are a sign of a stress response, it can leave you feeling confused and out of control when it comes to your actions. In humans, the four stress responses are fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. (This is similar to animals, however fawn is replaced with fidget.)

Before we move on, here’s one thing you should know: the four stress responses are also referred to as the four “trauma responses”. When you hear the word trauma*, you likely think of “Big T” traumas (major distressing physical or mental events), but that doesn’t have to be the case. Trauma can happen any time the body is overwhelmed with too much stress to process in the moment—that could be a seemingly small solitary event or chronic stress. I’ll give some personal examples of “Little T” traumas later in this article.

If your sympathetic nervous system is constantly being triggered, your brain will turn to these stress responses in an attempt to protect you. In this survival mode, you may find that you’re reacting to perceived threats even in nonthreatening situations.

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Signs Of The 4 Stress Responses In Your Own Life:

Fight
In fight mode, the belief is that if you can defeat the threat, you’ll be safe. Signs you’re in fight mode include:

Flight
With the flight response, there’s a belief that you can escape vulnerability by staying busy or fleeing. Here are some signs you may be in flight mode:

Freeze
With the freeze response, safety means being alone and away from the perceived threat of others. It’s your brain’s attempt to disconnect from your body and stress. Here are some signs you may be in freeze mode:

Fawn
With the fawn response, you give up your own needs and desires in order to appease the perceived threat. Here are signs you may be in fawn mode:

Which of the stress responses can you relate to? There’s a good chance you can relate to more than one.

When I first learned that my people-pleasing and perfectionist tendencies were signs of fawn and flight, I viewed those behaviors in a whole new light. While those are the ones that show up most for me, I’ve certainly experienced freeze and fight, too. For example, at the end of an extra-long, tough day when I haven’t had time to process my emotions (a little “T”), I may feel irritable and in the mood to be alone and zone out with a TV show (a mixture of fight and freeze mode).

Fear and trauma get an A+ when it comes to creating memories that are hard to forget. While this makes sense from a survival standpoint, it means it can feel impossible to escape from an automatic fear response when anticipating a similar stressful event. We see this demonstrated in patients all the time. One scary nail trim can elicit fear as soon as a dog gets in the car and anticipates a trip to the vet, even if more recent appointments have been more positive.

During my first dog spay as a vet (a deep-chested German shepherd), the suture knot slipped off an ovarian pedicle. That single traumatic event meant for years I would feel anxious the entire week leading up to a big dog spay. Even though every other surgery after had gone smoothly (thank you spay retractor and Miller’s knot), I was always anticipating the threat of failure.

See how “little T’s” can have such a big impact long after the solitary event? As a new grad, I was constantly afraid of making a mistake, which meant I was living in flight and fawn mode.

More from Dr. Knight: 3 tips for making the absolute worst totally tolerable

So what do you do when you notice a stress response?

Acknowledge and name when a stress response is happening.

By identifying and naming a fear response, it helps you to shift from a subconscious to conscious state to feel more in control. As a recovering people-pleaser and perfectionist, I spent most of my life thinking those traits were just my personality. Looking back, I see that I was living my life in a stress response without realizing it. I was stuck in a mode where I was reacting to perceived threats constantly.

I declared that I wanted to be a vet at age 6, and early on I knew that meant I needed to “be good,” impress adults, and get excellent grades in school. Growing up, I was rewarded for my people-pleasing and perfectionist tendencies. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I was always stressed. Yet, I didn’t know there was another option. I thought stress was synonymous with success, and no one taught me about boundaries or rewarded me for rest.

While those tendencies may have helped me get into vet school, it eventually led to burnout as a vet. Now, I call out any time I notice the urge to people-please, or feel paralyzed by or can’t slow down because of perfectionism. Labeling it helps me to snap out of it and to think more clearly about how I truly want to respond.

Once you identify a stress response, get curious about what your body is perceiving as a threat and what you need to feel safe and supported.

Instead of being hard on yourself when you find yourself getting defensive, saying “yes” to one too many things, overeating at the end of a long day, or feeling exhausted from trying to do everything, get curious about what you really need. What is making you feel threatened and how can you make changes to feel safer? Ditching judgement and embracing curiosity will help you to move forward so that you can spend less time in these fear responses.

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In Closing

I love that our profession is embracing Fear Free techniques for our patients, but perhaps our profession needs to establish a new Fear Free certification for veterinarians, as well. Fear Free techniques help to create a positive experience for our patients so that we can provide a lifetime of veterinary care to keep them as happy and healthy as possible. It works the same way for us!

In order for the veterinary profession to become more resilient and sustainable, we need to be proactive in recognizing stress so that we can prioritize fear-free techniques in our own lives, as well. You can start putting that into practice today.

* As a reminder, I’m a veterinarian and health coach, not a therapist. The focus of this article is on “little T” traumas that are frequently encountered but not often acknowledged in veterinary medicine. Learning about these responses has had a hugely positive impact on helping me to recover from burnout as a veterinarian, which is why I’m sharing them. However, I urge you to reach out to a therapist if you’ve experienced a trauma or to do your own research to learn more about the topic.

Amelia Knight, VMD, cVMA, INHC is a veterinary life coach. Learn more at www.lifeboost.today, follow her on Instagram at @lifeboostwithamelia, or listen to her podcast.

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