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How Self-Care Helps Physicians Become Their Best

By Tracy Asamoah, MD

If you do an internet search of “self-care”, you will find pages of articles with tips promising a path to greater well-being. There have been thousands of studies looking at the benefits of self-care. It’s true, if you are able to incorporate the advice found in these articles into your daily life, you might indeed, find your way to feeling better. Many of us feel overwhelmed or stressed in our daily lives as physicians.

Unfortunately, many physicians find their own self-care practices lacking. While the tips are often good, few articles explore the barriers that many of us encounter when we try to bring self-care practices into our daily lives. After a few unsuccessful attempts, many find themselves more frustrated. It can be a huge struggle just trying to incorporate sustainable, self-care practices, into our already busy schedules. Many feel the additional sting of failure for not being better able to make it all work together.

What does self-care really mean?

Self-care starts with self-compassion. In her book, Self-Compassion The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristen Neff describes self-compassion as, “recogniz[ing] our own suffering,” and “giving ourselves unconditional kindness and comfort while embracing the human experience, difficult as it is…”. It is in our ability to experience self-compassion that we are better able to show compassion towards those around us. In short, to become better humans.

Self-care practices are those acts, big or small, that we gift to ourselves to bring psychological, emotional, or physical peace and healing. Self-care is not an escape, it’s a destination. What you do to care for yourself may look very different from what your family, friends, or colleagues do. Self-care shouldn’t add on to your stress or generate feelings of shame or guilt. It should allow you to grow towards a better version of yourself. We are better physicians, parents, spouses, partners, and friends when we are psychologically, physically, and spiritually healthy.

What gets in the way?

Most of us chose a life in medicine because we wanted to help other people feel physically or mentally better. The culture of medicine can cultivate a sense of perpetual self-sacrifice and guilt when we consider our own needs a priority.

The biggest challenge for many physicians is that the primary source of stress, burnout, and other psychological issues are the systems that we work in. For many, the increasing demands of practicing medicine exceed our capacity to maintain our physical and mental wellness. Too often, modifying those demands is beyond our control. Our emotions can become complicated as we are left with the competing goals of fulfilling our work obligations and our desire to be at our best even at the expense of our wellness. Many physicians don’t see viable options for placing their wellbeing as a priority or struggle with guilt or shame when they do. However, when we take care of ourselves, we are in the best position to help and care for others. And if you haven’t already figured it out, you also deserve the care and nurturance that you so dedicatedly shower on all of those around you. So, when you can’t change those external forces, identifying areas where you do have control may be the best first step.

Taking the first step

Paying attention to your self-care doesn’t have to involve taking a week off to stay at an all-inclusive spa in Arizona. In fact, some of those simple, small daily behavioral changes and practices can have the biggest impact. And there’s research to support it.

1. Pay attention to your sleep. As much as your work schedule allows, get as close to 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted hours of sleep each night as you can. Prioritize sleep when you can. Short-changing our sleep impacts our physical and mental health with studies linking poor sleep to depression, cognitive decline, obesity, and heart disease.

2. Exercise regularly. Regular exercise has been found to have both physical and psychological benefits. Studies have shown the powerful effect exercise can have on helping some manage depression. This can be as simple as a walk when you have a break

3. Spend time with people. Not only does spending time with caring and supportive family and friends feel good, social interactions can increase longevity too. For now, this means making adjustments to accommodate social distancing, but even a phone call or video “date” can help you stay connected with others.

4. Give yourself a digital detox. Too much time on our devices may contribute to feeling stressed as well as increased reports of anxiety and depression for some individuals. Establish “tech-free” zones such as the dinner table or bedroom. Put your screens to bed and set a time to turn off all screens each night.

5. Spend time in nature. Studies have revealed that time in nature can be just what you need to help manage stress. Go for a walk or a nice hike when the weather allows. If you invite a friend, you can increase your socialization too.

6. Consider your spiritual health. Incorporating spiritual practices, whether formal, such as attending church or informal, such as mindfulness practices, can help you manage anxiety and overwhelm.

You might want a more personalized approach to your self-care practices. Remember, self-care doesn’t have to be a big gesture. Starting simple with practices personalized to your needs and interests is a great way to start. Take a 15-minute pause to sit in silence, take up a new hobby like knitting, or listen to your favorite music. The important thing is engaging in simple acts to show yourself care.

Please join us as we discuss this theme at our next Physician Peer Support session Saturday, May 2nd, at 10 am (PST):

Dr. Tracy Asamoah joins the RechargedMD team is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, writer, and physician coach. She has a passion for helping professional women realize and move towards their greater purpose and idealized selves.

MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: The contents of this website are for informational purposes only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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