October 10th, 2023

Unveiling the Power of Polyvagal Theory: A Conversation with Allison Johanson

Welcome to another intriguing episode of Vet Chat! Today, we're diving deep into the world of mental health, especially focusing on the challenges faced by our beloved veterinary professionals. Our special guest today is Allison Johanson, a dedicated licensed mental health provider with over 15 years of experience. Allison brings her expertise to the field by harnessing the power of the polyvagal theory to help healthcare professionals, including veterinarians, navigate workplace exhaustion and stress. So, let's embark on this enlightening journey with Allison Johanson. 

Unraveling the Polyvagal Theory 

Before we delve into the heart of the matter, let's take a moment to understand what the polyvagal theory is. Allison explains that it's a theory centred around our nervous system's response to safety and fear. The theory breaks this response down into three parts: 

1. Dorsal Vagal - The Freeze or Faint Response 

  • This is the oldest, reptilian part of our nervous system. 

  • It often manifests as depression, a slowing down of bodily functions, and difficulty concentrating. 

2. Sympathetic Nervous System - The Fight or Flight Response 

  • This system triggers anxiety or the urge to escape. 

  • High-pressure situations at work often activate this response. 

3. Ventral Vagal - The Social and Safe Response 

  • This is where we thrive on connection and safety. 

  • However, when we can't find safety, we may get stuck in either the dorsal or sympathetic state. 

Now that we have a basic understanding, let's explore the challenges that veterinarians face and how the polyvagal theory can help. 

The Veterinary World: Challenges and Stresses 

Allison sheds light on the myriad challenges that veterinarians encounter in their profession: 

Dealing with Euthanasia 

  • Veterinarians often face the emotional turmoil of euthanizing animals, which can take a toll on their mental health. 

Communication Challenges 

  • Communicating with non-human clients (the animals) can be challenging, and interacting with their human owners adds another layer of complexity. 

High-Pressure Environment 

  • The veterinary profession is known for its high-pressure situations that demand quick decision-making and critical thinking. 

Strategies for Managing Stress 

Now, let's explore some practical strategies for managing stress, especially those rooted in the polyvagal theory: 

Embrace Micro-Moments 

  • Instead of relying solely on traditional self-care practices, like going for a walk or taking a bath, Alison suggests finding micro-moments throughout the day. 

  • For example, pause to exhale when walking through a doorway. This simple act signals safety to your nervous system. 

Create Rituals 

  • Establish rituals for starting and ending your workday. 

  • These rituals act as anchors, helping you transition smoothly between work and personal life. 

Connect with Your Values 

  • Align your career with your core values. 

  • By integrating your values into your work, you'll feel more fulfilled and resilient in the face of stress. 

The Veterinarian Personality: Perfectionism and Beyond 

Do veterinarians possess certain personality traits that make them more susceptible to anxiety and depression? Allison mentions that perfectionism often prevails in the field. This constant pursuit of perfection can amplify stress as nothing is ever truly perfect. 

Battling the Stigma 

Addressing mental health in the veterinary profession requires breaking down the stigma. Allison advocates for open conversations from the top down, where schools and agencies actively acknowledge the challenges and offer support. 

Systemic Factors in Veterinary Stress 

The veterinary education system, in particular, encourages students to endure and minimize their emotions. This systemic culture of stoicism can inadvertently worsen mental health issues. 

Winds of Change 

In recent years, Allison has noticed a positive shift in the veterinary profession's attitude towards mental health. Increased awareness and research have led to a growing focus on supporting mental well-being. 

Rejoining the Veterinary World with Purpose 

For those considering rejoining the veterinary field or making a difference, Allison advises aligning your career with your values. Identify what truly matters to you and find ways to incorporate those values into your work. 

Resources to Understand the Polyvagal Theory 

If you're eager to explore the polyvagal theory further, Allison recommends resources such as Deb Dana's books, "The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation" and "Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centered Practices." Additionally, you can delve into the theory's foundational work by Steven Porges on polyvagalinstitute.org

Connect with Allison 

Allison welcomes your questions and conversations. Feel free to contact her via email at [email protected], explore her website at www.supportedchange.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn

A Final Thought 

As we conclude this enlightening conversation, let's remember that while challenges exist, veterinary professionals deserve recognition for their dedication. The journey towards better mental health begins with acknowledging the difficulties and seeking support. So, here's a question for you: How can we collectively support and nurture the mental well-being of our invaluable veterinary professionals? 

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