Physicians are trained to endure 36-hour shifts, running from the ER to the ICU and back again with little or no sleep. As healthcare professionals, we are accustomed to standing up for humanity while believing in our ability to thrive, even when challenged to save lives. But how do physicians keep their minds sharp and emotions upbeat when the pandemic is threatening their patients, their colleagues and their own lives? Physicians make a commitment to uphold life and uphold hope. Studies suggest that optimistic health care professionals achieve better patient outcomes and respond to disasters with greater resilience. Sounds good, doesn’t it? The truth is the ability to see the good in trying situations is a skill that can be learned by anyone.
The trick is to treat life’s challenges as a part of the adventure of being human. Health care professionals “see it all” and keep coming back for more because the quest to save lives is, in part, a celebration and a recognition of the value of human life. We thrive on the experience of working together to accomplish a worthy task, even when it seems impossible. We find the humor in life, where we can. I once removed a bullet from the leg of a man who was shot by his girlfriend during a rousing game of “cops and robbers.” I could only assume that he was the robber. We also learn to accept that all battles are not meant to be won when we must respectfully say farewell to the 90-year-old patient who chooses to expire as the sun sets.
For the ordinary person, these circumstances may seem trying and troublesome. For the health professional we honor the experience and find something to marvel about in the outcomes. It is not always perfect but because we develop the habit of learning from the bigger picture, we are better able to find the joy in the trying times. Medical research has discovered that the faster we are able to assign a positive meaning to an adverse event the more resilient that makes us. In her book, Taking Advantage of Adversity, psychologist Gail Feldman observes that we can also build resilience by being willing to dream, cultivate a wide range of interests, and maintain a keen sense of humor.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our normal way of life, it’s understandable that some may be challenged in their ability to cope with the sudden loss of loved ones, prolonged quarantine, lack of access to the usual goods and services, and for many, the loss of livelihood. If we are going to make it through this, we need to make a conscious effort to build our resilience by placing our focus on desired outcomes such as, feeling good again, having our basic needs met and fully appreciating love ones who remain in our life. Focus on the things that make us smile and allow us to find reasons to be grateful. By focusing on desirable outcomes, we avert the fear, anxiety and depression that weaken our immune systems and make us more vulnerable.
So, how do you make a practice of building resilience? Cultivate daily habits that lighten your heart and lessen your fear. Here are some suggestions:
1. Take a moment to think about a recent encounter where you were pleasantly surprised, felt joyful, or spontaneously laughed out loud. When you do this, your brain releases a flood of “happiness hormones” and you are re-training your brain to seek out joy.
2. Celebrate the beauty of the moment, no matter how ordinary; a beautiful skyline, the warmth of sunshine, the vibrant colors of flowers blooming, or the sound of children playing. This is what many define as mindfulness. Being mindful can measurably improve your optimism, body chemistry, and immunity.
3. Create a laughter library. There have been many circulating cartoons and memes to help us get through the pandemic. Keep a library of that which has made you laugh. Journal about your own funny occurrences. Just as you would keep a photo album to recall great memories, you’ll have a library of laughter to help you through more challenging times.
The more practiced you are, the better you become, at anything. Ask yourself: Are you practicing fear or resilience? I have confidence that we, as a community, will find new ways to adapt and turn this crisis into an opportunity to build our resilience. Keep practicing. Keep laughing. You will find courage over fear and your ability to stay positive in the face of challenge will be as simple as…pulling a bullet out of a leg. That’s resilience!