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Self-care as a busy physician

Self-care can consist of many things.  Good nutrition, exercise/movement, mindfulness, meditation, prayer, reading, spiritual practice, connection with others, gratefulness, giving, setting boundaries, getting out in nature, relaxing, play, restorative sleep, pampering, goal setting/prioritizing, vacations, scheduled alone/downtime. Basically, self-care means taking time to improve and prioritize your physical, spiritual, and emotional/mental health.


Many of the self-care items above can lead to rejuvenation in the short-term. The definition of rejuvenate: a transient verb that means to make youthful again; give new vigor, to restore to an original state.  Synonyms of rejuvenation: revitalize, freshen, recharge, refresh, renew, repair, restore, resuscitate, revive. 


Which areas are you neglecting? Which of those areas will benefit you most? Which will feel the best even if you can't imagine fitting them in? Rejuvenating self-care can take place on wonderful vacations, taking advantage of weekly days off, and I recommend a little recharge each day.  Automatically, you may think “not happening.” Why do we resist such a concept?  My cell phone doesn’t take offense to being plugged in each night. Siri doesn’t say, “Sorry, Tonya, but I still have 3% battery left, and this seems unnecessary. I still have much left to do.” Why do we feel any differently about ourselves?


If we want to sustain this amazing life and career we have chosen, we all need recharging. We give of our time, efforts, emotions, and talents all day, every day.  We need to carve out time for ourselves. How can this be done when there are so many things to do and so little time?


First, you have to realize it’s a priority. When 50% of family physicians, including residents, meet the criteria for burnout – that alone should be enough to realize the importance of self-care and rejuvenation.  As backwards as it may sound, if you take the time for some self-care, you will be more efficient, effective, and present for your patients, staff, family, friends, and community.  When I work all day, neglecting my self-care, my thinking is slower; my eyes get heavier; I’m more easily distracted. But, when I fit in a workout – even a short walk, I feel better and love the way I show up more. 


Second, once you see it as a priority, you schedule it and keep your promise to yourself.  You can set what seems doable now and aim for a goal of 30-60 minutes daily down the road.  I know that may seem indulgent or impossible, but once you see the benefits all around, you will embrace it. The return on investment is very high.  Start with what seems doable for you right now. For some of you, you need to start by slowing down and giving up using maximum Valsalva to empty your bladder quickly or to slow down and actually chew and enjoy your food. (You know what I’m talking about!)  But really, can you commit to even 5-10 minutes 3 times a week to start?  If you have children – can your partner or a friend help make room for that?  Consider taking the scenic route home from work or the grocery store - maybe parking and just breathing in a scenic area.  I have a friend who created her own quiet self-care space in her home. She lets everyone know when she will be in it, and the kids and spouse respect her time and space. Does this appeal to you?


Third, you have to know what really rejuvenates you.  After years of studying and delaying gratification, you may not even know what it is that revitalizes you.  Great news! You can start experimenting.  It can vary day to day and you can have fun in the discovering.  What did you use to love? Playing the guitar, getting lost to some tunes, chatting with old friends, running, stretching, soaking in a bubble bath, hitting the weights, digging in the garden, journaling, etc. – you can figure it out.


Last, working on your thoughts and being present in each and every moment can go a long way for emotional/mental health.  I plan to deal with this topic in more depth in future blogs.


Some metaphors to pull from:

-in the event of an emergency, please put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.

-if you want to pour into others, you first need to fill your own cup.

-if you want to drive to amazing destinations, you better top off the gas tank.


Dr. Sasha Shilcutt is an academic cardiac anesthesiologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.  In addition to her demanding career,  she balances a family with four children, publishes journal articles, writes books, leads a women physician’s group, blogs, puts on conferences, works as an entrepreneur, and designs.  She fits in more than most of us ever will.  Here is the key - she always emphasizes self-care and scheduled downtime.  She wrote one time, “If we look at self-care as one more thing to do, it adds stress.  If we look at self-care as a step toward success, it adds peace.” 


So, for now, pursue success and peace by being intentional for your self-care. Look at your days and weeks. Where can you prioritize regular rejuvenation? What’s the minimum you’re willing to commit to? Experiment. You owe it to your family, your patients, your career, and yourself! 


Have a joy-filled day!  Tonya 

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