Before the present pandemic, we had an epidemic of physician and nurse burnout. A majority of those in healthcare caught in a cycle of exhaustion, cynicism, and loss of purpose. And all the change and uncertainty the virus has brought certainly doesn’t help! It’s now more imperative than ever that clinicians build resilience to all the pressures and stress of our careers.
In my 30 years as a physician and decade as a physician coach (having coached over 500 physicians,) I’ve seen seven habits, thought patterns, and practices that distinguish the ones who can thrive despite pressure, and bounce back from burnout, and those who cannot. These seven can be implemented by anyone, and are the difference between a calm, fulfilling, purposeful career, and burnout.
1. Resilient clinicians remember that life is short
Last I heard, death is inevitable. Illness too. Thanks to the pandemic, this is more in the forefront for all of us than it may have been before. But how often do most of us lose sight of these truths and delude ourselves by believing that death and aging affect others but not us?
The costs of this delusion are twofold. Firstly, ignoring the reality that life is impermanent means we can spend our days sleepwalking and biding time that won’t be there forever. We can spend hours on charts, and then come home and scroll on Facebook and LinkedIn, instead of taking in the goodness of our families and the present moments around us.
Secondly, thinking that we and our families won’t experience pain,sickness, and tragedy, leads to much suffering when difficulty inevitably arises. We can feel like life has been unfair to us – or that we deserve better.
Resilient clinicians recognize that the misfortunes of life happen to everyone – and they react with strength, compassion, and wisdom when they do.
2. Resilient clinicians let go of perfectionism
Are you a perfectionist? In healthcare, you definitely aren’t alone. It’s a trait that helped us get into and survive our training, but it’s also a trait that gets in our way as we progress in our lives and careers.
We can find ourselves overly focused on living the perfect life, on getting every one of our actions perfect life, on getting every one of actions perfect, on having the perfect exterior. All these expectations create a mountain of pressure for us.
Feeling a need to get things perfect creates anxiety around the experience – whether it’s charting, spending time with our kids, or picking up a new hobby. And all that anxiety is exhausting!
Resilient clinicians recognize that perfection is largely an unattainable goal – and they realize that doing their best is what they set their sights on. They accept and enjoy the bumps in the road that come along the way.
3. Resilient clinicians lean into gratitude
We’re told that gratitude is good for us but resilient clinicians know this deep in their bones. They spend time appreciating what they have and try not to focus on what they don’t. They count their blessings and they do so regularly.
Numerous studies have identified the multiple benefits of gratitude. Gratitude increases empathy and decreases depression and aggression. Gratitude improves sleep and decreases aches and pains. Gratitude enhances the strength of meaningful relationships and increases our sense of well-being.
The more we focus on the blessings that we have in our lives, the more happy and fulfilled we become. The more we focus on what we do not have, the more miserable, exhausted, and grumpy we can find ourselves being.
Leaning into gratitude does not mean adopting some sort of artificial Pollyanna stance! What it means is taking time to appreciate what is truly good in your life. That may be the fact that you are employed, that your health is good, that your loved ones don’t have Covid. It may also involve savoring a good meal, the warmth of a sunny day, or the smile of a close friend. Small or large, begin grounded in gratitude builds our resilience to the stresses we face.
4. Resilient clinicians know which thoughts to believe
We all have filters that obscure how we view ourselves and our worlds. These filters lead to cognitive distortions – ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us that are inaccurate and untrue. We can have repetitive unhealthy, distorted beliefs in our heads, and we often stop questioning these. Instead, we may find ourselves reinforcing these over time, so that they only become more and more concrete.
Resilient clinicians recognize which thought patterns are serving them and which aren’t. They understand that thoughts are simply thoughts, mental events generated by the mind. They are curious and discerning, and develop the habit of observing rather than engaging with each and every thought.
Questioning the filters through which we see the world forms the basis for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other highly effective psychological interventions. It’s also at the heart of mindfulness. With mindfulness, we heighten our awareness of what their mind is up to. We begin to see more clearly when our mind is spinning a yarn about something, and when we’re focusing more on a mental narrative than the reality that lies before us. Doing so is key for building our resilience.
5. Resilient clinicians move past the Imposter Syndrome
Many in healthcare suffer from the Imposter Syndrome, that belief that what we know is miniscule and what our peers know is massive, and that it’s only a matter of time until we’re found out as a fraud. But we don’t stop there. No, our mind is often busy fueling a host of self-defeating messages.
Because we see ourselves from the inside, and know all of our own insecurities, flaws, and embarrassing failures, we feel like we pale in comparison to everyone else’s polished exteriors.
Resilient clinicians are aware of this information imbalance, and work to be more gentle with themselves. They are able to view their own accomplishments objectively and they compare themselves to others less, because they know that they are on their own path.
For more advice on how to overcome I.S.,, watch my CoachX on the topic.
6. Resilient clinicians let go of what they can’t control
It’s become clear that there is much that is dysfunctional in the American healthcare system. Whether it’s the out-of-control prices of needed medications, uninsured families having to utilize busy emergency rooms as the only way to access care, or the profound disparities in outcomes for African Americans, the problems are many. Sadly, many of the problems in our system are out of the control of most clinicians. Yet, how often do we find ourselves railing against some problem or other? Banging our fist, literally or figuratively, and wanting to scream “How can this be?” or “This has got to stop!”
Resilient clinicians know that all that railing dissipates their energy. They know that energy conservation is a key ingredient in avoiding burnout. They notice when their emotional temperature is rising and ask themselves: Is this something I can change? If it is, they think about how best to intervene. If it is not, though, they remind themselves that the one thing they always have control over is themselves! They can decide how much to engage and how much to let go. Doing so preserves their energy so they have it to utilize in taking care of themselves, their patients, and their loved ones.
7. Resilient clinicians have a growth mindset
In order to weather the storms of life, we have to have an internal belief that we can shift our own behaviors, and improve and grow.
Think about your own thought processes as you read this piece. Did you think of these habits as things that could be adopted? As things that you could integrate into your life?
When you think about your shortcomings, do you think about them as immutable truths? Or things that you can incrementally improve upon?
Resilient clinicians take gradual approaches with things they want to improve upon, and they are gentle with themselves throughout the process. They know that self-kindness is more motivating that self-bullying! They know that resilience is built by being patient with themselves as they learn and grow.
Resilience is something that lies within each and every one of us. But we don’t always realize this. I hope that you can take some time to reread this post, and choose one or two things that you’d like to do to build yours. Let me know how it goes.
If you enjoyed this post, I know you’ll enjoy my book Everyday Resilience. A Practical Guide to Build Inner Strength and Weather Life’s Challenges.
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If you’ve missed any previous posts in our popular Mindfulness In Medicine Series, here’s a list of them for your convenience.
- Managing the difficult co-worker
- Patient satisfaction in healthcare and mindfulness
- Mindful parenting
- Self compassion mindfulness for physicians
- Mindfulness and non-physician healthcare administrators
- The top 10 common myths about meditation
- Doctor stress, overwhelm and physician burnout
- Being present with patients
- Mindfulness leadership for physicians
- How to prevent medical errors causes and physician burnout
- Beat imposter syndrome anxiety symptoms with mindfulness