Incorporating self-care, wellness into routines can prevent doctors’ burnout


Gradually, we are emerging from the chaos, isolation, and anxiety of COVID-19. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adjusts its recommendations and vaccinations become more widely available, our communities are beginning to return to normalcy. We are encouraged to put aside our masks if vaccinated and rejoin society, to venture out with less hesitancy and anxiety. As family and friends reunite, memories of confusion, frustration, and fear are beginning to fade to black. Despite the prevailing belief that we should move on, look forward, and remember the past to safeguard our future, remnants of the pandemic remain.

A doctor relaxes in his chair. shironosov/Getty Images

Unvaccinated individuals, notably children under the age of 12, are quite significant in number. The use of telehealth is now standard practice.

For several years, we were warned about the looming “mental health crisis.” The past year has demonstrated that a crisis no longer looms – it has arrived. Our patients can reveal the vulnerability COVID-19 has wrought – from the devastation of lives lost, supply shortages, loss of employment and financial stability – to a lack of access to computers and thereby, the risk of educational decline. Those factors, coupled with isolation and uncertainty about the future, have led to an influx of individuals with anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders seeking mental health treatment.

Doctors, others suffering

As result of a medical culture guided by the sacred oath to which care, compassion, and dedication held as true in ancient Greece as it does today, the focus centers on those around us – while signs of our own weariness are waved away as “a bad day.” Even though several support groups are readily available to offer a listening ear and mental health physicians who focus on the treatment of health care professionals are becoming more ubiquitous, the vestiges of past doctrine remain.

Dr. Tanya Thomas, a psychiatrist in North Kingstown and East Providence, R.I.

Dr. Tanya Thomas

In this modern age of medical training, there is often as much sacrifice as there is attainment of knowledge. This philosophy is so ingrained that throughout training and practice one may come across colleagues experiencing an abundance of guilt when leave is needed for personal reasons. We are quick to recommend such steps for our patients, family, and friends, but hesitant to consider such for ourselves. Yet, of all the lessons this past year has wrought, the importance of mental health and self-care cannot be overstated. This raises the question: How do we incorporate wellness into our routines while navigating the complexity of medicine?

It is vital to accept our humanity as something not to repair, treat, or overcome but to understand. There is strength and power in vulnerability. If we do not perceive and validate this process within ourselves, how can we do so for others? In other words, the oxygen mask must be placed on us first before we can place it on anyone else – patients or otherwise.

Chiefly and above all else, the importance of identifying individual signs of stress is essential. Where do you hold tension? Are you prone to GI distress or headaches when taxed? Do you tend toward irritability, apathy, or exhaustion?

Once this is determined, it is important to assess your stress on a numerical scale, such as those used for pain. Are you a 5 or an 8? Finally, are there identifiable triggers or reliable alleviators? Is there a time of day or day of the week that is most difficult to manage? Can you anticipate potential stressors? Understanding your triggers, listening to your body, and practicing the language of self is the first step toward wellness.

Following introspection and observation, the next step is inventory. Take stock of your reserves. What replenishes? What depletes? What brings joy? What brings dread? Are there certain activities that mitigate stress? If so, how much time do they entail? Identify your number on a scale and associate that number with specific strategies or techniques. Remember that decompression for a 6 might be excessive for a 4. Furthermore, what is the duration of these feelings? Chronic stressors may incur gradual change verses sudden impact if acute. Through identifying personal signs, devising and using a scale, as well as escalating or de-escalating factors, individuals become more in tune with their bodies and therefore, more likely to intervene before burnout takes hold.

With this process well integrated, one can now consider stylized approaches for stress management. For example, those inclined toward mindfulness practices may find yoga, meditation, and relaxation exercises beneficial. Others may thrive on positive affirmations, gratitude, and thankfulness. While some might find relief in physical activity, be it strenuous or casual, the creative arts might appeal to those who find joy in painting, writing, or doing crafts. In addition, baking, reading, dancing, and/or listening to music might help lift stress.

Along with those discoveries, or in some cases, rediscoveries, basic needs such as dietary habits and nutrition, hydration, and sleep are vital toward emotional regulation, physiological homeostasis, and stress modulation. Remember HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Too hot, Too cold, Sad or Stressed. Those strategies are meant to guide self-care and highlight the importance of allowing time for self-awareness. Imagine yourself as if you are meeting a new patient. Establish rapport, identify symptoms, and explore options for treatment. When we give time to ourselves, we can give time more freely to others. With this in mind, try following the 5-minute wellness check that I formulated:

1. How am I feeling? What am I feeling?

2. Assess HALTS.

3. Identify the number on your scale.

4. Methods of quick de-escalation:

  • Designate and schedule personal time.
  • Write down daily goals.
  • Repeat positive affirmations or write down words of gratitude.
  • Use deep breathing exercises.
  • Stretch or take a brief walk.
  • Engage in mindfulness practices, such as meditation.

Once we develop a habit of monitoring, assessing, and practicing self-care, the process becomes more efficient and effective. Think of the way a seasoned attending can manage workflow with ease, compared with an intern. Recognizing signs and using these strategies routinely can become a quick daily measure of well-being.

Dr. Thomas is a board-certified adult psychiatrist with interests in chronic illness, women’s behavioral health, and minority mental health. She currently practices in North Kingstown and East Providence, R.I. Dr. Thomas has no conflicts of interest.

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