Three Questions Physicians Can Use to Dial Down Anxiety

January 30, 2015

Next time you are in a stressful situation, I recommend asking yourself these three important questions.

Physicians and healthcare staff members work in highly demanding, stress-filled jobs. While a little of anxiety is normal, a lot can take a heavy toll on your health, professional satisfaction, and work-life balance.

Next time you are in a stressful situation, I recommend asking yourself three important questions. They can help you regain perspective, and dial down on your anxiety.

Here are three examples of stressful situations you may encounter, and the three questions you should ask that can help you deal with similar situations when they crop up.

1. Ask: "What Do I Want?"

Example: You attend your kid’s Little League game and one of the other parents in the bleachers is highly concerned about his son’s or daughter’s performance. This is the parent who is constantly yapping to the coach to ensure that the child is inserted in the right place in the lineup. Or, the parent who berates the umpires as if the umpires sought to be partial, or were paid major league salaries. This parent is so insistent that the child must do well that the child doesn’t enjoy participating.

This parent's behavior might elevate your anxiety, and make it difficult for you to enjoy the game. It's time to ask the question, “What experience do I want for my child? You might find that the following answers emerge:
• To have my child enjoy himself as a member of the team.
• To have my child learn to participate with others.
• To have my child appreciate sports, and develop a lifelong fitness habit.
• To have my child know that I am there in support of him.

When you ask the question, “What experience do I want for myself?” these answers may emerge:
• To enjoy watching my child play.
• To relax.
• To be sociable with other parents and onlookers.
• To show league officials, managers, and coaches that I support their efforts.

Asking yourself, "What do I want out of this situation?" can help you eliminate stress due to others' behaviors, and it can help you remember and focus on the bigger picture.

2. Ask: "What is This Anxiety Doing for Me?"

Example: Your schedule is getting busier and busier and you are being forced to squeeze more patients into your day. You don't know how you are going to get everything accomplished.

Dr. Bernie Siegel, author of "Love, Medicine and Miracles," routinely ask his patients, “What is your illness doing for you?” This question disarms many people. An illness is something that “you get,” right? It isn’t something that “does something for you.”

When you ask yourself, “What is my anxiety doing for me?” you may find that anxiety is a clue that you need to make a significant change to find more balance in your career.

For instance, your anxiety might indicate that you:
• Are approaching your job incorrectly.
• Need to take breaks more frequently.
• Need to drink more water.
• Need to learn more about tension-relieving techniques that you can self-administer.
• Need to let others know that you are in over your head right now.
• Need to get more sound sleep each night.
• Are in the wrong job.

By some estimates, tension-related headaches comprised 75 percent to 80 percent of all headaches that people get today. Yet, some people don’t get headaches at all. They understand the importance of keeping themselves in balance.

3. Ask: "What happens if I don’t do this task?"

Example: You finally take a vacation, but you can't seem to shake the office, and you feel the urge to call and check-in frequently.

When you ask yourself, “What will happen if I don’t call?” the likely answers are:
• Everything goes just fine.
• Some big problems have emerged and other people are taking care of them.
• Some problems require your involvement, but they can wait until you get back.
• Other people miss your input, but they can proceed for a week without you.

Next time you feel anxiety about a particular task, consider what will happen if you don't complete it. The answers may help calm your nerves, and help you put what is really necessary back into perspective.