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The 5 Elements of Physician Self-Care

Studies show that medical students have a precipitous drop in empathy levels within just months of starting their third-year clinical rotations. While there are a variety of proposed explanations for the transition from naïve pre-med idealist to world-weary cynic, one likely culprit is the de-emphasis on self-care which occurs during these rotations.

Virtually overnight, medical students transition from a routine of regularly scheduled lectures and study periods to a brave new world of 4 AM rounds, overnight shifts, and wolfed-down meals in between operating room cases. And if students dare to express feelings of hunger or fatigue, their senior resident or attending is likely to tell them to “suck it up!” or remind them that “you can sleep when you’re dead.” By the fourth year of medical school, jaded senior medical students are passing on the same ‘words of wisdom’ to the juniors behind them.

The message: Patient needs come first. Doctors’ needs (and much less those of medical students!) are a mere inconvenience, something to be ignored and overcome. Or worse, something to be proud of. (“You worked with a 103-degree fever? Well, one time I went back to work after giving myself intravenous fluids in the call room from for a stomach flu!”)

While it’s possible to continue this superhuman behavior for a few days, weeks, months, or even years, it’s not good and it’s certainly not healthy. Moreover, doctors develop dangerous habits that are hard to break, following them even after their student and resident days are long gone. Case in point: Unless there is another doctor present, I’m always the first person done eating at the table, as if some invisible code pager is going to pull me away from my meal at any second.

By continuously deferring our own physiological needs, physicians harm not only ourselves, but also provide a disservice to our patients.

Geni Abraham, MD, an internist and wellness expert, notes that when physicians don’t take care of their own needs, they can’t be “good medicine” to their patients. Abraham compares physicians treating patients while they are physically depleted to “trying to fit a twin-sized sheet onto a king-sized bed”—a futile and impossible task.

“Do as I say, not as I do”

In order to provide the type of care that patients deserve, physicians must prioritize their own needs. “We’ve got to get back to the fundamentals of personal health care,” says Abraham. “We need to be doing exactly the things that we are telling our patients.”

She recommends that doctors start by focusing on the following aspects of self-care:

1. Nutrition. “I don’t care if you want to follow a vegan or a keto-diet, as long as you are eating whole foods and a balance of nutrients,” says Abraham. It’s also important for physicians to practice mindful eating—actually tasting and enjoying our food, rather than gulping it down as if we are on 24/7 duty and expecting to be called to a patient’s bedside at any moment.

Abraham notes that eating is a social activity, and great enjoyment can be gained from eating in the company of others. Take the time to schedule and plan meals with family and friends, rather than eating over the sink or in your car (guilty on both counts).

2. Exercise. “Exercise is the cheapest drug for anxiety and mild to moderate depression,” says Abraham. “It’s also one of the best ways to help students and residents learn, as movement has been shown to promote learning.” While physicians certainly understand the benefits of exercise, the challenge is often finding the time to exercise.

“You have to find the time,” advises Abraham. Even if you can only do 10 or 15 minutes, schedule that time into your week and make it non-negotiable. Consider an app like the “7-Minute Workout,” which gets your heart pounding and can be done in the comfort of your living room. It may also help to find something active that you might enjoy like a sport or dance class.

3. Sleep. “Lack of sleep causes memory loss, irritability, and chaotic thinking,” says Abraham. “And chaotic thinking doesn’t help our patients or ourselves.” Abraham recommends getting enough hours of sleep at night and practicing good sleep hygiene. “Put your phone upside down to avoid the blue light that it emits and avoid watching intense television shows before bedtime.” Instead of looking at screens before bed, Abraham recommends practicing mindful meditation or deep breathing exercises.

If you still feel sleepy even after getting enough hours of sleep, consider getting tested for sleep apnea. Robyn Alley-Hay, MD, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist who is now a physician coach notes that starting CPAP for her previously undiagnosed sleep apnea was a life-changer. “I wish I had been tested for sleep apnea years ago,” says Alley-Hay. “I no longer have to start my day exhausted, slow, muddled, and generally grumpy.” Alley-Hay recommends that doctors get tested and treated. “It is hard enough to recover from call nights, irregular shifts, and short nights as a physician. Add sleep apnea on top of that and it’s a recipe for exhaustion, burnout, irritability, and even depression.”

4. Nontoxic relationships. Physicians need support from family members, friends, and colleagues. We need to take the time to nurture those relationships by scheduling activities, like date-night with your spouse and lunch with a colleague. Show up for medical society meetings and physician socials. Knowing that we are all dealing with similar issues can provide a great deal of support.

On the flip side, extricate yourself from relationships that are toxic or emotionally draining. Say ‘no’ to people, employers, committees, or memberships that fail to add value to your life.

5. Mindful self-compassion. Abraham suggests that physicians pay attention to how they talk to themselves. She reminds us that humans are wired to pay more attention to negative thoughts than to positive ones, and that we need to practice and work to counteract negativity in our lives. “It takes five positive thoughts to overcome one negative thought,” says Abraham. One way to achieve mindful self-compassion is to keep a journal of your emotions, and to take a moment at the end of each day to focus on the things that went well.

When one of my patients is being hard on themselves (“I’m stupid, I’m a failure”), I take a cue from Martha Beck and ask them if they would speak to a child the way they are speaking to themselves. The answer is usually: “Of course not!” In the same way, physicians need to be kind to ourselves and forgive ourselves when we make a mistake.

Achieving self-care

As overachievers, physicians often try to take on too many tasks at the same time. That’s especially risky when it comes to self-care. “If you try to make 19 different changes at the same time you won’t succeed – it will be too overwhelming,” says Abraham.

Instead, she advises executing one idea at a time. “It can be as simple as increasing your water intake or eating two fruits per day to begin.”

Abraham also advises us to think of ourselves like a boat. “If you want to turn a boat, you have to do it slowly by degrees, not as a pirouette. If we turn the wheel too fast, we will just end up at the same point where we began.” Instead, she advises that we focus on change idea by idea, degree by degree.

By making slow and intentional positive change towards self-care, physicians can function better and more effectively—and that will pay off in patient care. As Abraham says, “Eat right, move right, sleep right, and think right, so that you can feel right.”


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