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How To Deal With Physician Burnout: A Self-Care Guide


The first step to recovering from physician burnout is recognizing that you are experiencing a change in your way of feeling and acting. Listen to those trying to share their observations. Denial is the enemy here, not a colleague or family member. The following self-care exercises offer some very doable steps to weave into your life so you can gain the insight needed to realign your perspective.


Begin to reflect on the current challenges in your professional life. Try not to give in to the temptation to blame or rationalize or to retreat to the story you tell yourself about these challenges to explain how to react to them. Instead, take a close, nonjudgmental look at these events and identify some of your habitual behaviors that surface during these situations. Is there a common theme?


It may prove helpful to take a piece of paper and create two columns. Label one column “Part of the Problem” and the other column “Part of the Answer.” Now place each identified behavior into the column that best identifies it.


Take some time and consider the contents of the column listing the habitual behaviors that are sabotaging you. For example, is it time to stop clinging to attitudes and behaviors that no longer serve you and finally embrace a better way?


Simplify by saying no and meaning it. Saying no does not mean you cannot do something. Saying no means that you would not be able to do an excellent job on what you have already agreed to do if you were to say yes. Saying no is actively acknowledging your limits and honoring your commitments.


Answer the following question in the most gentle but honest way you can: are you staying overcommitted to ensure there is little to no time or energy to devote to addressing your issues? If the answer is “yes,” find the strength to begin cutting back on over commitments. Use your newfound time to do something for yourself or start meditating.


Establish and maintain healthy boundaries at work. Do not allow your work ethic to undermine you. Constantly finding your- self in the role of the go-to person is not always a compliment. The added stress will eventually deplete you of your valuable energy and sow the seeds of frustration, which could then lead to resentment and anger. Unfortunately, there is very little to be gained by continually pushing yourself beyond the point of exhaustion. If you find yourself using your leisure time to crash, make a better choice and set healthier boundaries.


Begin to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Reconnect with nature. Walk in the park or on a beach. Don’t think; just walk and breathe. Watch children playing. Get caught up in a great, non-academic book. Listen to music. Take a nap. Wander through a museum. Think ice cream! Watch cartoons. Engage in anything that helps you slow things down, laugh, and rest your mind.


Make time just to sit and be. Try to make friends with the noise in your head. Realize that you can never actually turn off your mind, but you can learn to control the onslaught of runaway thoughts that trigger your adrenalin and distort reality.


Inviting stillness into your life will seem incredibly challenging at first. However, the potential rewards overtime for sitting still and simply breathing for ten minutes include increased patience, a sense of perspective, and the ability to access your own innate, intuitive knowledge to help with problem-solving.


Invest in your health. Make your health a top priority. Schedule that mammography. Lose the extra fifteen pounds. Invest in a proper pair of corrective lenses/eyeglasses. Call the dentist and get a good cleaning. Work a massage into your monthly routine.


Let go of the illusion of attaining perfection. If you often find it challenging to turn assignments in on time or meet project deadlines because you need to “polish” it a bit more, then I am speaking to you. This insistence on perfect only represents you as someone who cannot deliver. You are most likely tormenting your teammates with your relentless insistence that things are not good enough yet. While in fact, you are unknowingly sending the message that you do not want to take responsibility for the finished project.


Research professor Brene Brown (2013) offers the following definition: “Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame... It offers us the illusion of a shield.” Reset that bar to doing the best you can do on any given day. You are a professional, so there is no dodging the responsibility bullet.

Yes, there will be times when you must drill down and find the energy to amaze even yourself. But that type of effort cannot be a daily approach. Reframe the list of “things to do” in terms of process. There can always be a version two. Find absolute satisfaction in your excellence daily and stop the unrealistic drive for a state of perfection that does not exist.


Replace guilt with self-compassion and acceptance. The best you may have on some days will only be the energy or drive to brush your teeth. This is just the Universe tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Do you hear me now?” Slow down. Rest. Stop. If you don’t honor that suggestion, you can be sure that an injury or sickness will soon follow. The Universe will have the last word.


Choose a sober life. Addiction is a disease of isolation. Addiction is a deep, dark cave you cannot emerge without a guide. If you suspect you are addicted or addicted to alcohol or another substance, seek the appropriate assistance and get sober.


If you are addicted to habitual behaviors, such as gossip or anger, or have addictive thoughts centered on revenge or payback, adopt a sober approach to freeing yourself from this manner of thinking and behaving. Challenging yourself not to engage in that habitual thought or behavior one day at a time is essential. Embracing sobriety helps you walk away from the impulsive, often poorly thought-out behaviors that invite trouble and undermine your credibility.


Be patient with yourself. Sobriety does not begin when you stop the addictive behavior. This knot can only be loosened when you confront the underlying reason for the addiction. Sobriety is clear thinking, and this new process can take more than a year to take anchor in your new life. Be patient with yourself but no matter what, stay the course.


Learn to accept help. Start to share responsibility with others and delegate appropriately. Seeking and accepting support is not an admission of inability or weakness. Accepting use is a re-entry into the world in a more balanced and genuine fashion.


Seek out a sounding board. A little private time in a safe, confidential environment with a professional who can help you regain perspective can be invaluable. A doctor deserves to be cared for and supported too. Lose the superhero cape and accept a helping hand.


Let us also begin to be therapeutic to each other (doctors) instead of offering help in bait and switch. First, create a safe work environment to accept the use by delivering on your offer to help without criticizing that nursing colleague to others for having the audacity to ask for the service you offered. There are few things as destructive as being on the receiving end of a “slap-hug” approach to a relationship.


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