Vetlink Employment Service

Taking care of your mental health – Part 3: Sleep well & stress less

In the third instalment of our series on mental health, we examine the relationship between sleep and mental health and provide some practical tips for improving your sleep and managing your stress levels.

Getting enough sleep

Sleep is essential for good health – both physical and mental. In addition to repairing your body, it provides valuable downtime for your mind to process the day’s experiences and thoughts. In the short term, lack of sleep can cause irritability, difficulty concentrating, impaired judgement and slowed reaction times – none of which are very helpful for working vets. Prolonged sleep deprivation, meanwhile, has been linked to everything from obesity and cardiovascular disease to mental health disorders.

Unfortunately, a sound night’s sleep is often hardest to achieve at the very times it would benefit you most, like when you’re stressed or anxious. Both of these states increase levels of arousal and agitation, which can make it difficult for you to fall or stay asleep. Likewise, poor sleep can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety, driving a self-perpetuating cycle.

While eliminating stress and anxiety from your life isn’t always straightforward, there are some habits you can adopt to help make a good night’s sleep more achievable:

  • Stick to a routine. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, even on your days off, weekends and after a bad night’s sleep. This helps to ‘set’ your internal body clock to a daily sleep-wake cycle.
  • Establish a relaxing pre-bedtime routine. Ensure the last hour before bed is dedicated to unwinding – perhaps with a warm bath, quiet reading or relaxing music – rather than work or other stimulating activities, like computer games.
  • Create a good environment for sleeping. This means a quiet, dark, cool bedroom, a comfortable bed and no television, laptops, tablets or phones in bed – the light they emit is too stimulating for your brain when you’re trying to wind down.
  • Make your evening meal light. A big dinner can cause indigestion, making it difficult to fall asleep.
  • Exercise at the right time. Regular physical activity helps you to sleep more soundly, but make sure you’re all done at least three hours before bedtime or you’ll be too wired to fall asleep.
  • Avoid substances that interfere with sleep. Alcohol might initially help you to fall asleep, but after a few hours, it can have a stimulant effect that stops you from sleeping through the night. Meanwhile, caffeine, nicotine and certain medications (like cold and flu tablets) can all have stimulating effects that interfere with sleep. Steer clear of coffee, tea or cola after midday, and ask your doctor whether any medications that you take may be affecting your sleep. And, of course, it goes without saying that smokers will be much better off if they quit or at least cut back.
  • Don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep. Twenty minutes should be ample time to fall asleep after lights out, so if you’re still awake at this point, get out of bed and do something relaxing, like reading, in another dimly lit room until you feel your eyelids get heavy. The same applies if you have trouble getting back to sleep after waking during the night; don’t stay in bed watching the clock, it will only make you stressed and make it even more difficult to sleep.
  • Resist the urge for a daytime nap on your days off if you have trouble falling or staying asleep at night. If you really need to catch up on some sleep during the day, make it before 3 pm.

Managing stress

As we discussed way back in our first post on mental health, stress is a normal, unavoidable part of life, particularly for vets. So what are some of the steps you can take to keep your stress levels in check? Here are some suggestions:

  • Exercise is a proven stress buster. Whether it’s a brisk daily walk with the dog or a regular tennis game with a friend, exercise helps to relieve stress by triggering the release of mood-lifting endorphins and refocusing your attention from stressful thoughts to your body’s movements instead. There is increasing evidence to support the role of exercise in the management of depression and anxiety, too. Of course, an obsessive commitment to exercise isn’t helpful when it comes to managing stress, so if you feel excessively anxious about missing a workout session, it might be a sign you are overdoing it and need to back off a bit.
  • Relaxation techniques, such as meditation, yoga, breathing exercises or simply listening to relaxing music, can help to counter the effects of stress. They are also highly portable, and can therefore be a useful strategy for providing short-term relief from acutely stressful situations that you encounter during your work day.
  • Hobbies provide another distraction from stressful or worrying thoughts and can have a calming, meditative effect simply by doing something you find enjoyable. Don’t let anyone tell you that doing a jigsaw puzzle, baking cupcakes or a spot of fishing is a waste of time!
  • Schedule some worry time. Stressful thoughts and worries can be particularly invasive, so it’s rarely constructive or successful to simply try and block them from your mind. Instead, it can help if you set aside some time each day to really focus on your concerns and try to work through some useful solutions using a dedicated “worry journal”. You might devote the first thirty minutes when you arrive home from work to worry time, but once that half-hour is up, it’s time to close the book and set your worries aside until tomorrow. If you can’t get to sleep because something is worrying you, jot it down in your worry journal to work through the next day.
  • Don’t dwell on the past. Life isn’t perfect, and neither are you. You will make mistakes – both at work and in your personal life. Accept that you can only do your best, and sometimes you will mess up. The important thing is that you learn from your errors and take steps to ensure you don’t repeat them.
  • Limit alcohol intake. At times of stress, it can be tempting to self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs, but ultimately it compounds any stress you are feeling and you end up feeling worse the next day.
  • Seek professional help if need be. If you feel like your stress or anxiety levels are spiralling out of control, you are feeling persistently sad, low or miserable, or losing interest in your work, hobbies and activities you used to enjoy, it’s time to consult a professional. As we discussed in our first mental health post, your GP is a good starting point. In addition to referring you to suitable counsellors, psychologists or other health professionals who can help you work through your problems, your doctor can also discuss whether medication may be helpful for you.

Next time

We’ll conclude our series on mental health in the next post by tackling a couple of potentially delicate questions. Specifically, are you in the right job? And is the veterinary profession right for you?

If this article has raised any concerns, remember help is available:

Lifeline, 13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Line 1300 659 467
Samaritans Anonymous Crisis Support line, 135247, www.thesamaritans.org.au
Beyond Blue, 1300 22 46 36, www.beyondblue.org.au
Kids Helpline (aged 5-25), 1800 55 1800, kidshelpline.com.au
Mental Health Emergency Response Line (MHERL) 1300 555 788

Last Updated: May 2024

DISCLAIMER: The above information is for guidance purposes only. Vetlink takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the information, which is not intended as advice. We recommend you take advice from a suitably qualified professional. Vetlink takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the information and does not endorse any individual or organisation. It is your responsibility to determine the suitability and qualifications of any individual or organisation.