This is the third of three chats VetStaff’s Julie South has with Companion Animal Veterinarian of South Wairarapa Veterinary Services – Dr Jane Ough, BVSc.

Pressure is not Stress – Nick Petrie – presenter NZVA VBB Conference 2022 – an excerpt from “4 steps to be resilient in disruptive times”

Nick Petrie – a mountain biking friend of Dr Brendan Hickman from Nelson – presented one of the VBB – the Veterinary Business Branch of the NZVA – sessions at conference.

Why is it that two people can go through the same experience – illness, company merger, divorce – and have vastly different reactions?

One person may become stressed and overwhelmed while the other person is……. resilient.  

How does that happen?

Nick’s life changing story

Nick Petrie first learned about this research 18 years ago, when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

At the time he was playing rugby for a living in Japan when, during the final game of the season, he suddenly ran out of energy and had to leave the field.

He said he could feel something was wrong.

He flew home to New Zealand where his mother met him at the airport.

She told him he looked sick and took him to the hospital.

The medicos did a series of tests and eventually operated and discovered he had three big cancerous tumors in his abdomen.

They did a 5-hour operation and took them out.

It took him three months to recover.   In that time he couldn’t eat and lost a lot of weight.

When he could walk again, he returned to Japan and tried to put all the ingredients of his old life back together.

Twelve months later, the cancer returned, this time in his liver.

The doctors used a procedure that promised only to work in the short term and told him there was  no other treatment available.

What happened next was the same thing that happens to all cancer patients. Every three or six months you must get a new scan and wait for the doctors to tell you that either the cancer has returned, or you’re good for another three months.

Nick’s mind went crazy. All he could think was, what if he didn’t live long enough to see 30?

What if it comes back?

He was, understandably, very stressed out.

At his worst point, he read an article about a researcher, Dr Derek Roger from the University of York in the UK.

For 30 years, Dr Roger had been studying why people have such different reactions to the same event.

As it turned out Dr Roger had moved to New Zealand and agreed to meet with Nick.

For two hours, he taught Nick everything he’d learned about how some people stay resilient.

He also told him what to do for his own stress.

Nick followed the doctors’ orders and his stress levels started to reduce.

Over time his stress went from 10 out of 10 on the resilience assessment Dr Roger uses, to 0 out of 10, which is where it remains now.

The cancer returned a number of years ago, and it is present but relatively stable in Nick’s liver.

What is very different this time is that he doesn’t spend a minute of his day stressing about it.

The event is the same, but the stress is gone.

Pressure isn’t stress

Researchers wanted to know what was causing these different responses.

They identified two important ideas.

The first was that there was a difference between pressure and stress. Most of us lump these together as if they’re the same thing.

If you combine pressure and stress together then stress is inevitable.

But when you separate them you have different options.

Pressure is defined as external demand in your environment.

Do you think everyone in your clinic has pressure on them? Youbetchya! 

Do you think that everyone is stressed? Maybe. Maybe not.

The researchers found that to convert pressure into stress, people had to do something very specific, and that people who weren’t doing this action weren’t getting stressed.

That specific action was ruminating about events.

Human Rumination

Rumination in the human context is thinking over and over about events from the past or future and attaching negative emotions to them.

If you think about a time in your life right now when you felt very stressed – it was probably because you were ruminating to a large degree.

Now think of an area of your life where you’ve got high pressure but have no stress.

Notice that you don’t ruminate about that area of your life.

As part of Nick’s work, he meets CEOs and leaders who have extremely high levels of pressure but very low stress.

You can probably think of some people in your life who’ve very low levels of pressure, yet very high levels of stress?   How do they do it?   They very likely sit around and ruminate about things.   Or lay in bed at night ruminating over things they have no control over.

Okay – so let’s say you ruminate.  Why does it matter?

Three reasons to worry about stress in your life

It matters for three main reasons.

The first one is your health. When you anxiously ruminate about imagined future events, your body responds as if it is physically threatened and puts you into a state of fight or flight.

You produce adrenaline, which – as you know – speeds up your heart rate.

In small doses, this is fine but when you keep on ruminating, it puts a strain on your heart which leads to the build-up of plaque and an increased risk of heart disease.

Chronic ruminators have increased incidence of heart attacks.

The second hormone produced is cortisol.   Again, as you know, this is also fine in small doses.   but increased cortisol decreases the body’s lymphocytes.  So your ability to fight off infection is decreased.  Because of this, chronic ruminators have suppressed immune function.

The more you ruminate, the more at-you we become of getting sick.

In addition to the negative health effects, ruminators tend to be less productive because they’re not mentally present enough to get anything done.

They spend much of their time trapped in endless rumination loops inside their head, and while they are busy replaying these stories, they’re not working to full capacity.

Finally, how do you feel when you’re ruminating on and on?  Over and over?

Most people say they feel exhausted and miserable.

So when you combine these three things – an increased risk of heart attack, decreased or suppressed immune function and feeling constantly exhausted and miserable – there’s really nothing useful about stress.   You end up with a shorter, miserable, and unproductive life.

But apart from that, there’s nothing wrong with it!

Conservationist & Companion Animal Veterinarian Dr Jane Ough, BVSc

Dr Jane and I recorded this before the NZVA conference in Hamilton. 

If you went to conference and you visited the Sustaina Vet stand, you may have met Dr Dr Jane. 

Unfortunately, every time I visited the Sustaina Vet stand Dr Ough wasn’t there, so I wasn’t able to meet her in person.

Dr Jane Ough, BVSc

IMAGE SUPPLIED

As you’ll hear, Dr Jane’s time and pathway as the veterinarian she is today is quite different from the usual career path of veterinarians. 

She’s from the BVSc Massey class of 1982.   Today, Dr Jane enjoys orthopaedic surgery especially mending broken farm dogs.

Dr Ough became concerned about climate change when her two daughters were children.   She gained a diploma in Environment and Sustainability when her children were little, through the Open Polytech in 2010.

Dr Jane is a passionate conservationist.   And I mean passionate!  She and her partner Jeremy have retired two thirds of their small farm in the Wairarapa and covenanted it with the Queen Elizabeth II Trust.

Working one day a week for QE2 for 2 years Dr Jane said improved her understanding of native forest regeneration.   She now spends this day a week on her own covenant, and, working with the local catchment group, helped set up and is helping South Wairarapa Veterinary Services take Climate Crisis Action to run a more sustainable business.  

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OTHER EPISODE LINKS MENTIONED IN TODAY’S EPISODE

Pressure is not Stress – 4 steps to be resilient in disruptive times – White Paper by Nick Petrie

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