The answer to his question is to learn healthy habits of thought. Situations by themselves are not the source of stress. We see this clearly in our daily lives when one person is stressed out about a situation that doesn’t faze someone else. The underlying root cause is the habits of thought the person has developed, which can increase or decrease the stress they feel in any given situation. There is now enough research to identify some habits of thought as unhealthy, meaning they increase the risk of adverse outcomes such as depression, anxiety, relationship troubles, failure, suicide ideation and suicide, substance use and abuse, risky behaviors, and more.
There is also sufficient research to identify some habits of thought as healthy, meaning their use increases pro-health behaviors, decreases the risk of mental health disorders and relationship discord, increases resilience and success in every area of life while decreasing the risk of adverse physical, mental and behavioral health.
Our habits of thought are not the result of a fixed personality. They are simply habits we picked up during our life that created neuropathways that our synapses find easier to follow because, like a rut in the road, they are easier to follow. But at any time we have the ability to change our habits of thought. Changing from unhealthy to healthy habits of thought makes life less stressful and more fun. Since our ability to think increases as our stress level declines that means problems we encounter are easier to resolve.
There is a common misconception in the medical community that says: No one understands the stress of a doctor other than a doctor.
While that may be true, a doctor understands the source of the stress a doctor experiences, but an expert in human thriving understands why the doctor feels that stress and how the doctor can decrease it without changing the world in which he/she lives and works. Stress is an indicator; much like the gas gauge in your car is an indicator or, in a doctor’s world, high blood pressure is an indicator of heart disease. Knowing what it indicates requires understanding the new research that has tossed out the old understanding of the purpose and use of emotions and replaced it with validated information that works in real life–even in a doctor’s life. Understanding and incorporating the new information into our automatic responses is what I teach.
A study that looked at over 2,000 medical students revealed that “12% had probable major depression and 9.2% had probable mild/moderate depression.” Although suicide is not the result of a single incident, a single incident can be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. We may believe we can tell if someone is on edge, but there are two reasons that we fail to realize it more often than not.
The first is that many people hide their inner turmoil and pain. In one case, described in her mom’s book, Kaitlyn Elkins’ family believed she was happy. She was described as a perfectionist and highly intelligent—intelligent enough to hide her pain from her family even when she was still a child. She took her life during her 3rd year of medical school. Perfectionism is a risk factor for suicide and when a perfectionist attempts suicide their perfectionist tendencies result in more completed suicides.
It isn’t just the profession of medicine that leads to a suicide risk that takes several hundred doctors each year. Many healers become healers at least partially because of difficulties encountered in their childhoods that introduced them to the medical profession in a profound way. Some suffered significant childhood illnesses and others were abused or experienced trauma. In some cases, doctors have spent a lifetime hiding their personal pain while tending to others.
Self-care is critical for every person. The research is in and the verdict is clear—we can only be our best for others when our needs are met.
The stigma associated with mental health comes from a superstitious era when we did not understand the genesis of mental illness and could not cure it. That time is past. If someone gave you a recipe that provided you with inaccurate directions to prepare a dish and you followed the instructions, the failure of the dish to turn out is because the recipe was flawed. It isn’t the fault of the person who follows the recipe—unless they keep using the recipe that doesn’t work hoping for a different result.
The way we’ve been taught to interpret and respond to our emotions is a flawed recipe. It’s time humanity benefited from the correct instructions. The right instructions are not a rote response, free will is still fully available, but the person making the choices is better informed. We should be teaching all children the right recipe but we shouldn’t ignore adults who did not receive the right recipe as children. They are, after all, teaching and healing the next generation.
I am glad that North Carolina has changed its policy and now not only supports physicians seeking help to heal but now encourages them to set the example for their patients by mandating self-care when needed to maintain their ability to practice medicine.
If your state is not yet supportive, I encourage you to obtain a copy of Mental Health Made Easy which will be published in March and will help you to understand how to change any unhealthy habits of thought you’re using to healthier ones in the privacy of your own mind. Unlike my earlier books, I’ve pared down the content so that it becomes a workbook/instruction manual instead of the science-laden textbook style of my earlier works. The same theories are presented but the new format is quicker and easier to read and implement.
If your state is moving forward in addressing the issue of physician burnout and stress, my workshops are designed to teach you about healthy habits of thought. It’s a cost effective solution because it is effective in large groups and actually works better in groups of 30-200 people. It works in large groups because teaching healthy habits of thought does not require personal disclosure. While a safe and supportive environment is provided, anyone who does not wish to disclose anything about their thoughts can simply apply the examples to their own experiences.