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Three Things To Know About Our Brains, Awareness and Living a Good (Veterinary) Life

Updated: Aug 17, 2022

Do you sometimes feel like a stranger to yourself? I certainly did for long parts of my life and this is probably why I always felt drawn to psychology: as a way to understand myself and others better. However, it was not until about a decade ago, that I took a deeper diver and started to seriously exploring the literature about the psychology and neuroscience behind living a happy, meaningful and fulfilled life. Some of you may remember that this led me to writing the Good Life Campaign blog as a charity challenge, where I summarised everything I had read and researched, as well as then continuing with further practice, training and qualifications in this field.

I have learnt so much since then (and continue to learn!), and would like to continue giving back and contributing to the ongoing discussions about working well and living well as a human in general and a member of the veterinary profession in particular. In addition to launching the Vet Mind Works podcast recently together with my good friends and colleagues Alison Collings and Monica Merlo, I thought it may now be time to take up my good old blogging hat and start sharing some insights again in writing as well. To start with, I would like to share three of my biggest learning points throughout the last years and I wonder others make of it!

1) From an evolutionary viewpoint, the human brain has essentially not changed for tens of thousands of years, which means that our brains have evolved for us to live in a group formed by a small number of fellow-humans and to keep us safe in often rather hostile but otherwise relatively simple external circumstances with scarce resources. The brains of most of us (with only a few notable exceptions) don't like uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity, social risks and threats, or a lack of control and autonomy, which are sadly often experienced in the modern veterinary work place. Our brains are instead hardwired for trying to ensure the fulfilment of our physiological and psychological needs (particularly safety and connection). And because our brains and bodies do not distinguish between a physical threat (e.g. a tiger) and modern day abstract threats (e.g. a review of an upset client or an upcoming exam), it is no wonder that we often find ourselves in a state of anxiety and overwhelm. While this insight may be somewhat depressing, the good news is that there are things we can put into place to help our brains adjust to the realities of modern day life (and work!). More on this to follow below and further blog posts!

2) The first and most simple step towards this adjustment is to become aware of what is going on in our life on several levels, which may include:

  • Becoming aware of the relationship that we have with ourselves, with others and the world and situations we find ourselves in as a whole

  • In any given moment, becoming aware what is going on for us. This is actually surprisingly simple, because whatever is going on is either something we notice through out 5 senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling), a thought, an emotion or a behaviour that we are becoming aware of. (Spoiler alert: Coming back to our 5 senses is not only one of the simplest ways to relax, but also to work out what is going on for us emotionally- more on that in future posts).

  • Awareness of who or what it important to us and what sort of life we would like to live

  • Becoming aware of our challenges.

3) Science tells us that living a good life, that is a life in which we experience a sense of mental wellbeing, contentment, meaning and fulfilment, is not about seeking out opportunities of hedonic happiness, goal chasing (be it qualifications, money or social status) or positive thinking. A good life does not come easy- it needs to be earned and is a byproduct of doing what matters to us (being aligned with our values and finding meaning in life), connecting with other people (particularly having close relationships with those who matter most to us), doing what we are good at (using our strengths and experiencing mastery and flow), having a say on when and how we do things (autonomy), and many other factors. This requires some intentionality and wisdom, particularly managing our personal resources well (such as time, energy and attention), as well as having a good understanding of ourselves, our physiological and psychological needs and our emotions. This is because sometimes it is normal for uncomfortable emotions and thoughts to come up, when we are trying to do the things which are important for us in the long run. For example, it may be important for us to spend time with our partner or family, but we can find it difficult to draw boundaries at work (because it makes us feel uncomfortable or we think that others will think badly of us). So living a good life also means developing the psychological flexibility to do things which feel uncomfortable in order to do the things which matter.

Over the next year or so I will try to unravel some of these things in more detail. I would be interested to hear any of your insights and experiences on these topics, so please feel free to get in touch!

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