Author: Melyssa Allen, Founder of Mind-Body-Thrive Lifestyle
Before you roll your eyes after reading the title of this blog, we want to let you know upfront this isn’t a “Just stay positive! Everything will be okay! Just choose to be happy!” toxic positivity feature. We’ve seen the memes and heard the phrases…we know that the “good vibes only” approach only makes struggling people feel worse and dismisses the normal, human experience of painful emotions.
The intention of this blog is to help equip you with different evidence-based skills from positive psychology that can help support your well-being and resilience as a veterinary professional! While we can’t stop ourselves from feeling a certain way through difficult times, there are activities we can engage in to give us a boost when we’re feeling low or ride out those difficult emotions. As you move through the following information, we ask that you have a curious mind and an open heart. You may initially think that this information feels too “fluffy” or that it won’t work for you, but as former skeptics ourselves – we can share that not only is this information supported by heaps of research, but we’ve also personally experienced and witnessed with clients the power of practicing these activities for enhancing well-being. First things first: what in the world is positive psychology?!
What is Positive Psychology?
The scientific definition of positive psychology is the study of character strengths, positive relationships, and life purpose that contribute to individuals and communities thriving and enable them to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives (Lianov et al., 2019).
Why does this matter?
Activities rooted in positive psychology are meant to increase positive experiences – such as emotions, thoughts, and behaviors – and serve as a buffer to life challenges. Positive psychology activities have also been shown to have a reciprocal, reinforcing relationship with healthy lifestyle behaviors. The more healthy habits you engage in, the more positive emotions you will typically experience – the more positive emotions you experience, the more healthy habits you typically engage in! The information is important, because both healthy lifestyle habits and positive psychology practices have been found to act as a protective factor against burnout.
Does that mean just practicing healthy habits and being optimistic, you will never experience burnout during your career? …we wish – but absolutely not! Burnout is a multifaceted, complex issue that stems from organizational, environmental, and systemic challenges over time. However, knowing that there are certain thought and behavior patterns you can adopt to help support your resilience (hopefully) offers a sense of empowerment.
How can we practice it?
- PERMA: Originally developed by Dr. Martin Seligman, the PERMA model is a positive psychology practice that offers a framework to engage in activities that help boost positive affect. Here are some reflection prompts you can ask yourself to guide you in identifying potential actions you can take that fit with the PERMA model:
- POSITIVE EMOTIONS: What can you do to increase positive emotions in yourself?
- ENGAGEMENT: What “flow” activities can you do regularly? (Flow refers to a state of time passing quickly due to your engagement in an enjoyable activity)
- RELATIONSHIPS: What relationships can add positivity to your life? What can you do to increase positive interactions?
- MEANING: What activities are meaningful to you, and how can you include them in your professional and personal life?
- ACCOMPLISHMENT: What goals can you pursue that align with your values and passions that you can achieve successfully?
- Gratitude: Actively practicing gratitude can help you shift from a state of focusing on your burdens to instead focusing on your blessings. While it doesn’t completely remove pain and suffering during challenging situations, it can help you buffer those effects by building psychological resources. Research has shown that engaging in gratitude practices can have benefits such as increased well-being, reduced stress-related illnesses, improved relationships and social bonding, and reduced mental health symptoms.
- Acts of Kindness: You don’t have to be Oprah and give away fancy cars or destination vacations to your friends and family because even just small acts of kindness can go a long way for both the giving and receiving parties! Whether it’s holding a door open for a stranger, leaving a kind note for a coworker, or giving extra belly rubs to a favorite client, acts of kindness help to boost positive emotions!
- Visualization: Our brains have been hardwired over our evolutionary history to have a negativity bias…but the good news is – we can practice positive visualizations to help retrain our brain for more positivity and optimism! By imagining our ideal future self, we can help spark motivation and excitement to engage in behaviors that move us closer toward that version of ourselves. Things you can think about to create this visualization are…What would your ideal day look like? How would you feel, and what would you be doing regularly? Where would you be, and who would you be with?
- **important note – you may notice that negative self-talk arises during a practice like this, but see if you can give yourself permission to daydream during this activity and turn down the volume on that voice of self-doubt
- Health Promoting Behaviors: As I mentioned earlier in this article, we can engage in certain healthy lifestyle habits that boost our positive emotions. The “upward spiral theory” of lifestyle change has helped demonstrate that engaging in health-promoting behaviors supports emotional well-being through a reinforcing, reciprocal relationship. Research has shown…
- walking for 20 minutes per day, 3 days per week can have similar effects on reducing depressive symptomology as leading antidepressant medications;
- consuming 7-8 servings of fruits and vegetables per day leads to dose-response relationships of increased feelings of happiness into the next day;
- restful, restorative sleep for 7-9 hours per night can help protect against mental health conditions like depression and anxiety
- practicing mindfulness regularly increases stress resiliency and can help protect against burnout
Remember, these are called positive psychology practices for a reason – because, over time, the more you practice, the stronger these skills become! As an important reminder, these practices are not meant to try and take away, minimize, or dismiss any real-life pain or suffering you may be experiencing – and it’s always important to reach out to a qualified healthcare provider for any discomfort or distress you may be experiencing. Take some time to explore these different activities, experiment with what works best for you, and use these tools in your toolbox whenever you need a well-being boost!
Ford, K. (2020). “The gratitude attitude”: growing evidence for medical and veterinary professionals. Veterinary Nursing Journal, 35(5), 130-132.
Gazelle, G., Liebschutz, J. M., & Riess, H. (2015). Physician burnout: coaching a way out. Journal of general internal medicine, 30, 508-513.
Lianov, L. S., Fredrickson, B. L., Barron, C., Krishnaswami, J., & Wallace, A. (2019). Positive psychology in lifestyle medicine and health care: strategies for implementation. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 13(5), 480-486.
Lianov, L. (2021). A powerful antidote to physician burnout: intensive healthy lifestyle and positive psychology approaches. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 15(5), 563-566.
Macfarlane, J. (2020). Positive psychology: gratitude and its role within mental health nursing. British Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 9(1), 19-30.
McGonagle, A. K., Schwab, L., Yahanda, N., Duskey, H., Gertz, N., Prior, L., … & Kriegel, G. (2020). Coaching for primary care physician well-being: A randomized trial and follow-up analysis. Journal of occupational health psychology, 25(5), 297.
This blog was written by:
Melyssa Allen, MA, CHWC, DipACLM
Melyssa is a board-certified lifestyle medicine professional and certified health and well-being coach with a diverse background as an animal trainer, fitness instructor, and mental health professional. She received her Bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Psychology and her Master’s in Clinical Psychology from the University of Central Florida. Melyssa has firsthand experience witnessing the dedication of veterinary professionals in their careers while she worked as an animal trainer with the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program and SeaWorld Orlando. Using her multidisciplinary expertise in the fields of lifestyle medicine, mental health, and behavior modification, she has dedicated her company, Mind-Body-Thrive Lifestyle, to provide veterinary well-being coaching services.
Founder of Mind-Body-Thrive Lifestyle