I have a confession that I’m not proud of: This week I went through my first round of serious coronavirus related anxiety. Even though I’ve been living in a country with the disease for over 2 months, I let my guard down and let my anxiety get the best of me this week. 

Some background: My wife and I moved from New Jersey to Hong Kong in August of 2019 to work in a growing private practice. We arrived exactly one week after the Hong Kong airport shut down from national protests. And luckily, the protests haven’t impacted us much other than changing or plans some weekends. 

By late December, we started hearing rumors of a new respiratory virus in China, and by January Hong Kong was in full national response mode- partially shutting down the border with China, shutting down government-run parks and buildings, and providing guidelines for citizens to avoid potential exposure (which amounted to what we now call social distancing). By the end of January, rumors had started that the Chinese government would cut off the supply of paper goods like toilet paper to Hong Kong, which induced panic buying – we couldn’t find any toilet paper, cleaning products or hand sanitizer for about one month (and now they are everywhere – hope is coming for you as well!).

But none of that seemed to bother me. Things would keep moving along, and we could handle them. Until this week – COVID-19 started to take hold in the US, and specifically in NJ and NY where my friends, family, and former co-workers were located. I suddenly found myself with a mounting anxiety for their wellbeing, something I could do nothing about. I watched as former coworkers were temporarily laid off due to uncertainty and emergency cost-saving measures. Coupled with a week of difficult cases, it was enough to push me to the limit. I found myself doubting my abilities as a vet, distancing myself from others mentally, and even missing some deadlines on projects.

It’s a situation I’ve never been in before and my mind went into overload and partial shutdown. I luckily have a great support system in my wife and close friends who helped me rebound, but I don’t want it to happen again, or happen to anyone else.

So what do you do when you face a situation as you’ve never been in before? You can start by applying what I call BRACES to your day to keep everything together as things seem to be falling apart:

1. Breathe. Take a minute, collect your thoughts. You still have responsibilities to people and to animals who need you, but they need you to think clearly. In a time where situations can change hour to hour (or seemingly minute to minute) don’t get caught up in the endless barrage of news and fear. Give yourself time to react rationally.

2. Recharge yourself. Take the time to recharge and re-energize. In a time where it feels like you are being pulled in hundreds of directions at once, you still need to take time to fulfill your needs. Taking time off from work mentally is vital for your long-term health and has even shown to improve your quality of work. Schedule your recharge time like you schedule appointments and stick to it.

3. Acknowledge the uncertainty. There is no getting around the fact that we live in uncertain times. We are currently at a point where we can’t say what tomorrow will look like, let alone next week or next year. Acknowledging this fact, but not letting yourself be paralyzed by it, is essential. As veterinarians, we are almost uniquely prepared for changing situations and chaos. Adopting the mindset to change and adapt based on the current facts will improve your decision-making abilities and improve your long-term results. 

4. Clarify. Provide clarity and certainty where possible. Now that you know that things outside of your control could change over time, start to focus on the things you can control. Be mindful of your reactions to the news and to other information. Where possible, provide clarity to your staff as well – they are looking for guidance and some level of security in this time. Discuss your daily procedures with them and be sure to effectively communicate any changes as needed.

5. Establish a routine. Take control of your days by planning in advance. You don’t need a minute by minute schedule, but block the amount of time you will spend at work, how much personal recharge time you need, how much time you will be on social media/catching up on the news, how much Netflix you will watch, etc. Setting a schedule before you start these activities will keep you from falling into the time-sucking black hole of social media or Netflix binging. Taking control of your daily routine is a great way to add some certainty to your day in an uncertain world. To-do lists are also a great way to keep on track with larger projects

6. Stay connected to others. Just because you are physically separated from others, doesn’t mean you have to mentally or emotionally be separated. More than ever, take the time to talk and connect to your friends and family. We are all in this together. Even half a world away, it’s been comforting to receive a text or call from family or friends to talk about what we are all going through.

I know these things are easier said than done, and I know I’ve failed at them from time to time. But the important thing to remember is that there are always ways to improve our situation. We are all in a position now, both personally and professionally, that we haven’t experienced before. But with this change, we have the chance to shape our profession to be even better and stronger than it was before.

And finally, although times are trying and it can be difficult, make sure to keep your mind sharp and occupied. If your plans are altered and you have extra time, take that online CE course or read those journal articles you have been putting off. Or make it a priority to pick up that new hobby you wanted to start but never had the time (mine is photography). Or just take the time to connect with your family/spouse/pets in a way that you haven’t been able to because of work. Do whatever you need to do to keep from falling into the cycle of fear and despair that comes with mounting uncertainty.

And above all, stay safe and healthy.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.


Colin McDermott, VMD, CertAqV is a New Jersey native but is currently working at a private practice in Hong Kong. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 2011, and has undergone further training and has been seeing exotics patients ever since. In addition to his special interests in fish and reptile medicine, he has become more interested in practice management and bringing out the best in all veterinary staff members. When not in the clinic, he and his wife enjoy hiking, camping and exploring the new food options in Hong Kong.