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Improving Physician Wellness in a Post-Pandemic World

A recent article in Medical Economics discusses the ravages that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on mental health. Americans reporting depression or anxiety symptoms has risen from 11% in 2019 to 42% in December 2020. Because healthcare workers must respond to the emotional needs of both themselves and their patients, they may be at higher risk for psychological distress. A recent survey of healthcare workers found that 93% reported stress, with some also reporting anxiety, exhaustion, burnout, insomnia, and a general feeling of being overwhelmed.

As COVID-19 vaccinations continue to increase, there is a slow return to normalcy. Here are some steps that physicians and other healthcare workers can take to improve mental well-being.

Accept that having negative feeling and emotions is normal

Psychologist Steven Cohen, PsyD, the coauthor of a book on physician wellness, advises physicians to acknowledge their feelings non-judgmentally. “Emotional reactions occur automatically. They are neither good nor bad—they just ‘are,’” says Cohen. He notes that while we cannot control these feelings, we CAN control how we choose to think about them.

Pay attention to your emotions

According to Cohen, “The worst thing that we can do is to try to suppress or ignore our negative feelings and emotions.” While distressing feelings don’t need to be dwelled on, it is important to identify emotions and give them a label. The writer of the article provides two examples that might provide strong emotions: ‘I feel angry that my patient refused to believe that COVID-19 is real,’ or ‘I feel overwhelmed and exhausted with seeing so many sick patients.’

Cohen notes that acknowledging feelings may be uncomfortable but pushing through that discomfort is the key to finding emotional growth.

Challenge your beliefs

When feeling negative thoughts, ask yourself if there is any evidence to support that negativity. The author notes: “If you find yourself thinking, ‘this disease will never end,’ evaluate the thought logically. Do you know for a fact that the disease will never end? Consider the fact that all pandemics eventually end, and life gets back to normal. Critically analyze any negative thoughts that you have in this way.”

Ask yourself how you want to feel, and practice reframing

Visualize how you want to feel and think about how that can be achieved. If you are feeling angry and full of anxiety, think about how you would rather feel. Likely you would rather feel calm and in control. Practice cognitive reframing. Challenge your beliefs and then choose to think more positively.

The author provides the following example: “If you become angry at a patient who calls COVID-19 a “hoax” and find yourself thinking that your patient doesn’t trust you as a doctor, make the decision to choose an alternate belief. Perhaps something like, ‘right now, this patient is in denial because it is too emotionally painful for them to accept that COVID-19 is real, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t trust me as a doctor. After all, they came to the office to see me. It is very likely that with patience, I will be able to help them see things differently.’ If you would like to learn more about how to practice cognitive reframing, there are many online resources, or you can make an appointment with a mental health professional for one-on-one practice.”

Practice mindfulness daily

According to Cohen, “Studies show that even brief sessions of mindfulness activities—five minutes daily for 6-8 weeks—improves mental health.” The key is structure and consistency so schedule time in your day to accomplish this. Some ways to accomplish this are by utilizing a relaxation app, focusing on your breathing for 5 minutes a day, going outside and paying attention to nature, trying yoga or other relaxation exercises.

Engage in some degree of in-person communication

Because most of us have been socially isolated for over a year, we have developed new patterns and habits that can make human interaction more difficult. Step out of the virtual world and ease back into in-person socialization and relationship-building with friends, family, and colleagues. These can be relatively simple interactions, such as going for short walks or having coffee with a friend.

Know that you are not alone, and that distress can get better

Negative emotions can make you feel isolated and alone. Sometimes we feel like these feelings will never go away or that we are the only ones experiencing them. Seek support from friends, family members, colleagues, or other trusted people. Don’t be afraid to schedule an appointment with a psychologist or psychiatrist even if you don’t feel like you are in crisis. It’s far better to discuss your feelings early before they reach a critical state.

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