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Life-altering change can strain mental and emotional well-being and easily cause many physicians to become paralyzed by mental fragility
Several months ago, when restrictions imposed by COVID-19 surfaced, many physicians believed they could buckle down for a short time, then return to a normal routine. Instead, as each day passes, it is clear there will be no quick return to normal. As the number of COVID-related cases, patient demands, and overtime hours mount, so does stress. A recent poll from the California Health Care Foundation of 150 physicians found more than half (51%) reported increased levels of stress.
Life-altering change can strain mental and emotional well-being and easily cause many physicians to become paralyzed by mental fragility. Before we are physicians, we are human. Therefore, physicians must purposefully implement self-care techniques for personal benefit as well as for their families, friends, and patients.
Here are five self-care tips to help physicians curb stress and improve patient care:
Purposefully choosing happiness is to choose to actively show up with a positive attitude and to focus on the positive throughout the day. Physicians need to seek out joy and experience happiness, even in the midst of the pandemic. Physicians who seek joy also give those around them the permission to do the same.
When I arrive to work on Labor and Delivery, I focus on the importance of wearing a mask while explaining the COVID screening test to soon-to-be parents. These are important elements in their care that I need to accomplish, so the tone is often serious and somber. However, before I leave the room, I lighten the mood by asking if they decided on the baby’s name, if big brother or sister is excited, or what they have been doing at home to welcome baby. When my questions toward these new parents include joyful moments, I am letting them know that it is okay to feel a bit of fear and worry about the pandemic while also focusing on the joy surrounding the birth.
When I lead by example, my nursing team quickly follows, ultimately changing the attitude that we all have. Choosing joy can be contagious with teams and family.
One of the more challenging aspects of living through the pandemic is that this virus has made the need for connection with others more necessary than ever. Traditional ways of connecting with another physician may expose others to the virus. Physicians need to limit the ways they gather and share events with other people. However, physicians can spend time with family, friends, and community without putting another person’s health at risk.
Planning social events is an important way to connect with others whether in person or via video conferencing. It may feel as if the pandemic is stealing the ability to connect with loved ones and those we care about; however, it is possible to continue to share life’s moments–both big and small–with family, friends, and community.
Pre-COVID, volunteering often brought me happiness. Not only did it allow me to redirect my focus on something positive, but it felt good to be of service to others. Once the pandemic began, my normal volunteering opportunities stopped abruptly. I was hesitant to continue with my regular volunteering at the food pantry due to concerns surrounding my own COVID exposures at work. I was concerned that I would unintentionally spread it to others.
Now, I have learned that there are many ways to volunteer and be of service without putting myself or others at risk.
Healthcare employers can encourage physicians to collect food or clothing for donations, package goods, and arrange for pick-up. Parents can decorate lunch bags with their children for other children receiving lunches from food distribution sites. Many local animal shelters may need an extra hand, so offering to walk animals is another volunteer opportunity. In obstetrics, obs are there at the beginning of life. One of my favorite volunteer opportunities is writing letters and making cards for those in the twilight of their lives in nursing homes.
These are a few examples, but there are many organizations looking for volunteers.
A 2018 Psychology Today article noted when people wrote down their goals, they were 33 percent more successful in achieving them than those who formulated outcomes in their heads. The pandemic undoubtedly put life on hold but that does not mean discontinuing establishing goals, creating a plan (in writing) to reach them, and celebrating when they are accomplished.
Whether it is finishing a manuscript for a research study, developing a unit protocol, or creating a certain presentation, physicians can still create and achieve goals. Having goals and things to look forward to, whether they are personal or professional, can provide a sense of accomplishment and a source of hope during this time.
Isolation at home has changed how many physicians take care of themselves physically. Many of us are not walking around offices, stores, or even outside as often. The pandemic has made it even more sedentary than ever before. According to a Morning Consult poll released in July, only 19% of Americans said they’d feel comfortable going to a gym. Not only does this impact physical health, but it can add to existing depression and struggles with mental health. Physicians (and patients) should consider new ways to exercise and stay physically active. Spending time outdoors, going for a walk, or even taking an online yoga course are good ways to stay active.
Personal lifestyles are changing, and the effects of the pandemic will force physicians to change lives for some time. Physicians have many people depending on them every day. Speaking for obstetricians, if we cannot take care of ourselves, we cannot pour ourselves out to the moms and babies that depend on us.
Physicians need to check in with themselves, create balance, connect with others, choose joy, and do not let COVID-19 prevent a life of health and happiness.
Rakhi Dimino, MD is an OB-GYN hospitalist in Houston, TX and regional medical director for Ob Hospitalist Group, a national OB-GYN organization