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The What IFs Versus The What ISs

Anxiety is largely driven by the unknown. In 2020, anxiety is all consuming with the unknown of the state of the world to the unknown of our daily lives. In our veterinary clinics the unknowns drive our team’s fear and anxiety which allows for worry and negativity to invade the hospital.

Understanding the concept about the difference between the what IF and the what IS is important for hospital leadership and teams so they can move past the fear and constant anxiety.

The What If

“What we don’t know makes us worried and anxious”

As soon as we wake up in the morning we start with the what IFs. Our brain immediately starts thinking about:

“What if he calls out and we are short staffed?”

“What if we have too many emergency patients today?”

“What if my spouse loses their job?”

“What if my kids never go back to school?” “What if my kids do go back to school?”

“What if this virus never ends?”

These thoughts are very real and are all consuming. It's reasonable to be worried about every single one of these things. In many respects, worrying allows us to plan and prepare for the events that might happen. However, the problem with the what ifs is that once we are done planning and preparing all else is out of our control. We have no control over the what ifs. This is the reason why develop the anxiety and fear. We are afraid and we worry because we have no control over the what ifs.

The What Is

The what is does not cause us anxiety. It is the here and the now. It is what we have in our control right now. Right now you are reading this blog. Right now you are about to go eat something. Right now you are working in a clinic on a particular patient. These things are in our control because it is what IS happening right here and now. The control allows us to be less fearful and therefore have less anxiety. Even those of us who work in emergency medicine will admit that we don't love things out of our control. What we love is controlled chaos.

The what IS is important because it grounds us and allows us to recognize what is happening right here and now and what we have control of.

How to Shift From the What IFs to the What ISs

Recognize you are suffering from a case of the What IFs.”

We all struggle with worry and anxiety. Even for those of us who didn't have that much anxiety prior to this year, thanks to 2020 we now do. In order to reduce our stress in our lives we need to recognize when we are suffering from the case of the what ifs. For many of us we can start to feel a tightness in our chest, increase in breathing, or a headache that signals we are starting to worry and anxiety is building up. For some of us we can actively hear our thoughts turning in our head worrying us with every pressing new thought. In order to decrease our anxiety and stress we need to first recognize that we are suffering from the what ifs. Recognize you are worrying and it is debilitating you in that moment.

Shift the Mind

Once you recognize that you are worrying about things out of your control, ground yourself in something that IS in your control. There are many different ways to do this. You may decide to go for a run and take control of the fact that you have the ability to run in that moment. That run is your what is. You may decide to eat a piece of chocolate and find solace in the fact that in that moment what is, is a piece of chocolate. You may find relief in one of your pets and seek emotional comfort from them. While petting them recognize that you are present and what is, is that they are amazing and love you. These are things we have control of.

So how do we help our veterinary teams? The what ifs sound a little bit like this in our hospitals:

“If one more thing gets added to the schedule, I’m going to lose it.”

“If I don’t get out on time to pick up my kid I don’t know what I will do.”

“If my next client takes up more than 30 minutes I will never catch up.”

If you are in a leadership role this is where you need to have had that bigger conversation about what if versus what is to your team. If you hear them expressing a lot of what ifs, call it out. “I hear a lot of what ifs right now.” Now you need to ground them in a what is.

You can do that several ways. You can simply point out what is actually happening right then and there. “What is happening right now is that you are doing an amazing job and saving pet lives. Look at that adorable puppy you are helping.”

You can also create “What Is” jars. Develop a What Is Gratitude or Candy jar. When you hear a lot of what ifs say to your veterinary teammate, “I need you to go get a what is out of the gratitude jar.” They reach into the jar and pull out a folded piece of paper. It reads, “You are awesome. Keep up the great work.” That is what is happening right then in there and grounds them in the knowledge of what they have control of in that moment. Telling them to go get a what is piece of chocolate always makes a smile happen. “I need you to go get a piece of what is chocolate.” In that moment they reach into the jar, pull out a piece of chocolate and eat it. Right there is a moment in their control.

Think Like Your Pet Patient

I often would tell teams to please, “think like a dog” or “think like a cat.” Our veterinary patients have it so much easier. They know exactly how to live in the what is, here and now. My border collie loves tennis balls. Every time I throw one he is so excited! And when the game is over he looks a little sad but he gets over it and moves on. He doesn't stop and dwell on the what ifs. He doesn't think, “What if that was the last time she threw a tennis ball?” “What if we run out of tennis balls?” “What if she injures her arm and can’t throw?” You see, my dog lives in the what is all the time. He finds joy in moments that he has control of. Every single one of our pet patients knows how to do this. Sometimes I am jealous of them for knowing how to do this so easily where I struggle.

In a year where fear and anxiety is all consuming, let's have a little less of it. As humans we will always worry and have anxiety. However, this year it seems worse than it ever has been and for good reason. Recognizing where the worrying is coming from and that likely our fears are because we have no control of the situation is the first step in reducing the stress within our own lives and in our hospitals.

The second staff is redirecting our focus to things we DO have control of. We have a lot that we do have control over on any given day. Find solace and peace over the things you do have control of and redirect your anxiety away from that you do not. Easy said than done sometimes, but it starts with trying.

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