Dr. Alaina Rajagopal of ‘The Emergency Docs Podcast’: “I would encourage is to figure out what sort of physical activity works for you”

Spirituality may have to do with self-reflection, for some, so one way to accomplish this introspection can be through unplugging. While it is great that we have the opportunity to connect with one another through social media, video chats, phones, email, and more, that connectivity can be exhausting. It can lead to dependence on approval […]

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Spirituality may have to do with self-reflection, for some, so one way to accomplish this introspection can be through unplugging. While it is great that we have the opportunity to connect with one another through social media, video chats, phones, email, and more, that connectivity can be exhausting. It can lead to dependence on approval from other people and distract us from our own spiritual wellness. I challenge myself, and my family, to never bring electronics to the dinner table. I personally try to disconnect from my phone whenever possible and for at least one hour per day. I may not have the fastest email response times on the planet, but I am happier because of it.

Often when we refer to wellness, we assume that we are talking about physical wellbeing. But one can be physically very healthy but still be unwell, emotionally or mentally. What are the steps we can take to cultivate optimal wellness in all areas of our life; to develop Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing?

As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Alaina Rajagopal.

Dr. Alaina Brinley Rajagopal is a physician scientist working in emergency medicine in Southern California. She also develops medical diagnostic technologies at the California Institute of Technology. She trained in biology at Kalamazoo College studying and interning in various fields including paleontology, conservation biology, spaceflight microbiology, and spaceflight controlled biological systems. After gaining her bachelor’s degree, she went to the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) to pursue a Ph.D. in preventive medicine, public health, virology, and space life sciences. Her work was completed in the microbiology laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center studying why Epstein Barr virus reactivates during spaceflight. She also worked on viral reactivation in spaceflight analogs such as Antarctica. After finishing graduate school, she then began medical school, also at UTMB. She continued to work in the field of viral reactivation in spaceflight and spaceflight analogs; however, also focused her work on medical treatment in remote environments on Earth (such as Kenya, The Philippines, Brazil, and Nepal). She has spent greater than 11 months abroad working in remote and austere environments. She then completed a residency in Emergency Medicine at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Rajagopal has also earned a Certificate in Tropical and Travel Medicine from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH). She continues to work as a physician scientist in fields related to austere medicine and her current research focuses on development of tools to assist clinicians with medical diagnostics in remote locations. Dr. Rajagopal is also the host of The Emergency Docs Podcast. When she is not working in science, she is a wife and new mom and enjoys spending time with family, acting, mountain climbing, and traveling.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was always a curious kid. I grew up in South Bend, Indiana and was very interested in science, movies, and aviation. I wanted to be an astronaut, actor, paleontologist, virologist, physician, and dolphin trainer and I imagined that I would be able to make a career out of all of them at the same time. So far, I’ve done most of those things except astronaut and dolphin trainer…but I did work for NASA for few years though so got to pursue some of my spaceflight dreams. I also loved gymnastics, cheerleading, and running and spent hours with friends flipping around our backyards, building forts, and exploring our neighborhood. It was a pretty idyllic, Midwestern upbringing that included summers barefoot outside and winters playing in the snow and sledding.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Most of my career choices were inspired by film. Growing up in Indiana, I wasn’t exposed firsthand to a lot of the jobs I eventually pursued. I became completely enamored with spaceflight after seeing the movie, “Apollo 13,” decided I wanted to be a pilot after seeing the movie, “Top Gun,” decided I wanted to be a paleontologist after viewing “Jurassic Park,” wanted to pursue virology after seeing, “Outbreak,” and became interested in medicine after watching an episode of “ER”…and George Clooney. I went to Space Camp, which I loved, then went on to intern at several NASA centers in college. When I studied abroad in Kenya, I worked in an HIV clinic and considered going into medicine but ultimately, decided to pursue a PhD in public health, virology, and space life sciences. Halfway through graduate school, I became convinced that I needed to also study medicine clinically to truly understand the human body and my research questions so I went to medical school after I finished my PhD. I went on to specialize in emergency medicine…I guess “ER” influenced me more than I thought! Along the way, I felt I had dedicated a great deal of time to science and started to wonder about the purpose and meaning of life and my contributions to the world. I decided that life is really about stories. I realized that history is merely stories of our past and that acting would allow me to tell stories about the past, present, and future. With acting, I felt that even the sky wasn’t the limit. I started acting in graduate school and have continued to pursue interesting roles ever since. I think film is an amazing tool to inspire the next generation, provide commentary on our present, and to help us learn from past mistakes. I hope to use my career to help inspire a future generation of science geeks, similar to the way I found inspiration for my career through film.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

There isn’t one person who helped me beyond all others. I have been fortunate to have many individuals who have influenced me, encouraged me, and challenged me to be better. As difficult as it is to hear that you aren’t good enough, or someone doesn’t think you can do something, I also really appreciate the people who challenged me and doubted me. I think those conversations fueled me to be better, to always improve myself, and to never give up despite any opposition. It made me tough and forced me to have grit to succeed. I remember one of my graduate school advisors telling me that I needed to “be a better actress in order to succeed in graduate school.” That comment lit a spark in me that eventually led to me actively pursuing acting. Without that comment, who knows if I ever would have had the courage to start acting? That said, I am also grateful to the many people who encouraged me: my parents and grandparents, my teammates, my teachers, and my friends. They say it easier to remember the negative comments than the positive ones but, luckily, I have always had a team of people who have reminded me of the good when I needed it most.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

When I was in graduate school, I worked at Johnson Space Center and occasionally interacted with astronauts. After I became interested in pursuing medicine, I remember one of my parent’s physician friends telling me that I really should try to connect with a physician astronaut named Leland Melvin. I randomly ran in to Mr. Melvin one day and asked if I could talk to him about his experiences with medicine and spaceflight. He laughed and told me, “you have the wrong brother!” Apparently, Mr. Melvin wasn’t a physician-astronaut…a different African American astronaut, Bobby Satcher was a physician. While this was an incredibly embarrassing experience, it taught me that I should ALWAYS do my research before approaching someone for advice. Well-meaning individuals may not always remember information accurately so while trust is important, verification is critical.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’ve been reading Matthew McConaughey’s new book entitled “Greenlights.” While this book is full of interesting little tidbits and wisdom, there is one part that really resonated with me. I studied abroad in Kenya while I was in college and loved the wisdom inherent in many Kiswahili sayings when translated to English. For example, instead of saying “bless you” after a sneeze, the literal translation is “may you have many children” which is essentially saying, I hope you stay well enough to have many children. It just makes sense. People say things differently depending on where they are from, what their religion is, or what culture they identify with and this can sometimes lead to misunderstandings. I have always been fascinated by these interactions and how viewing things through the eyes of another culture can open you up to so many new possibilities. Mr. McConaughey has had many experiences with different cultures that he discusses in his book. In one case, he discusses an argument he witnessed where the two individuals were not trying to prove one another right or wrong, as we would in an American argument, rather, the two individuals were arguing in order to understand one another better. I thought this was a powerful life lesson and one which I have tried to take to heart. In my future arguments, I will seek to understand the other side…not to prove I am right.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

The one quote that has always spoken to me is “Ad astra per aspera.” It means to the stars through difficulties or hardships, depending on the translation. It has always reminded me that while a path to a goal may not be easy, it is worthwhile to endure the difficulty in order to achieve the end result. I’ve always been interested in aviation, spaceflight, mountains…anything that takes me toward the sky. This quote emphasizes stars, the universe, and the enormity of space which also makes my goal, or my hardship, seem small in comparison. It always reminds me that in order to go up, the journey may be fraught with difficulty but to accept the difficulty and overcome. I think it juxtaposes nicely with, “shoot for the Moon, even if you miss, you will land among the stars.” I have always tried to dream big and never give up but I find this quote reassuring for those times I fear not achieving my goal.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

At the beginning of the pandemic, and even now, I have found a lot of misinformation about COVID-19, vaccines, testing, and medicine in general. I started a podcast called, “The Emergency Docs” which aims to reach a broad audience to teach about various topics in medicine and, particularly, emergency medicine. It has been a lot of fun to interview my colleagues in medicine, as well as a few discussions with patients and even the author the book, “Pandemic.” I even had the opportunity to interview my husband who invented a new, faster, and less expensive method of disease testing which also worked for COVID testing. It has been really interesting seeing how our careers have intertwined. My husband and I are now are working together on developing some new ultrasound technologies that can be used to measure blood pressure more comfortably than a blood pressure cuff or arterial catheter. I’m never at a loss for things to do!

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series we’d like to discuss cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Wellness is something that physicians aren’t very good at. We are trained to accept long hours, missed holidays, missed weekends, and to sacrifice our personal lives to be better physicians. Recently, the medical community has realized that this lifestyle isn’t sustainable in the context of modern medicine so we, as the medical community, have started to look at how we can promote wellness for ourselves, our colleagues, and our patients. I think one important wellness habit is to identify your priorities. This helps with mental wellness. Once we have clarity about what really matters to us, it is easier to prioritize those things. My husband and I have really struggled with work/life balance during the pandemic as both of us have had crucial roles in diagnosing and treating patients. Ultimately, we learned that we needed to prioritize time with one another in order to avoid work becoming all-consuming…something that can easily happen in any line of work. Identify what matters most and then make it a priority.

As an emergency physician, I have also seen an increase in patients coming to the emergency department with anxiety. Anxiety can also become all-consuming and prevent people from being functional in their daily lives. In order to combat anxiety and enhance emotional wellness, it is really important for individuals to determine what helps them relax, what makes them calm down, and to enlist these strategies when they feel anxious or upset. I usually ask my patients about what helps them relax. Is it exercise? Deep breathing? Yoga? Meditation? Reading? Watching a funny movie? Hanging out with friends or family? Having a glass of wine by the fire? Getting a massage? There are multitudes of relaxing activities available. The key is identifying what activities help YOU relax and then engaging in these activities when times get tough. There are tons of meditation and yoga applications online, on YouTube, or available as apps on the phone. Figure out what works for you and do it. Personally, nothing helps me more than getting outside, running, going for a walk, doing some yoga, or getting up into the mountains.

Physical wellness is both easier and harder to accomplish than the previous two. Physical wellness has to do with what you are putting into your body, how you feel about your appearance, and perhaps even your ability to accomplish physical feats like run a mile in a certain amount of time or lift a certain amount of weight. It is easier in the sense that there are tangible things that one can do to accomplish results. If you want to lift more weight, slowly increase your weights until you reach your goal. If you want to be a certain weight, follow a healthy diet plan that gets you to your goal. However, often physical wellness is related to our mental and emotional wellness. If we feel happy, we are more likely to get up early, get onto the track or to the gym, and to say no to eating that donut. If we are sad, it is tougher to get out of bed and easier to say yes to a giant bowl of macaroni and cheese. That said, it also works the other way. If you say no the junk and do the exercise, you are more likely to get your endorphins flowing and change that sadness to feelings of accomplishment and success. I usually recommend some form of physical activity, particularly some type of physical activity you find challenging, to really get to that feeling of accomplishment. While training for and running a marathon might hurt, it is something one can build toward bit by bit. Those little successes build to greater successes.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

I have to admit, I am really, really bad at meditating. It is tough for me to stop thinking about my to-do list and start focusing inwardly. When I have tried meditation practices, I tend to get uncomfortable, twitchy, and seem to always have an itch that is probably just an excuse for me to move. That said, yoga really helps me as a form of meditation that also involves movement and concentration so I get my mind off my to-do list and onto my breathing and relaxation. I don’t have a particular yoga practice. I tend to make up my own vinyasa flow based on movements from classes I’ve attended or videos I’ve watched. There are tons of apps and yoga classes available online so that is always something I use when I get stuck in a rut with my practice. Since becoming a new mom, it is really hard to find time to exercise so doing yoga in my home has been a convenient source of relaxation and exercise that I can do on-demand at any time of day and doesn’t require a babysitter.

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

I am a huge believer in physical wellness triggering mental and emotional wellness. Physical wellness is really important to me and I find I am much crankier when I don’t get to work out…similar to how my dog starts to misbehave when he doesn’t get his walk! The first habit that I think is critical is literally just forming a habit. It doesn’t matter what it is. Set your goal and stick to it no matter how you feel, what is going on in life, or how sad you feel. If you decide you are going to run three times per week, do it. You don’t have to run a marathon every day. You may only have time or energy for three miles, or one mile. I’ve often found that if I can convince myself to get out there “just to run one mile” I end up feeling good and running much farther.

The next habit is to set small, incremental goals. A lot of people just starting an exercise regimen try to do too much too soon and then fail because it is too hard. I wouldn’t recommend trying to go from couch potato to climbing Mount Everest in a day. Start small and build gradually. I started running with my mom when I was in middle school and I remember it being so hard. I started setting small goals for myself. I would go with her on every run she went on, no matter what, no excuses. She would usually run five to six miles and I could barely make it a quarter of a mile when I started. Every time I went, I would run until I was tired but then force myself to run to the next telephone pole before turning around and running home by myself. Eventually, those telephone poles added up to a mile, then two miles, then six and eventually I could do my mom’s full run, right alongside her. All that mattered was that I set the habit and pursued it through small, achievable, incremental goals. Even to this day, I feel like I have to run to a physical object like a fence or a pole before turning around…which tends to annoy my running partners!

The third habit I would encourage is to figure out what sort of physical activity works for you. I love running but I know a lot my friends and family absolutely hate running and would rather chew off their own hand than run a mile. Physical activity is not “one size fits all.” While I do think that there should be a challenge associated with physical activity, it shouldn’t be a pain or chore. If it is, you should find a different activity. Dance, swimming, cycling, and weight lifting have been valuable additions to my physical fitness routine when I can’t run due to injury or need to cross-train. Mixing up your activities ensures you don’t get bored and generally promotes better fitness, particularly for individuals who engage in high repetition sports like running. It is really valuable to train different groups of muscles through different sports to promote stability, strength, and even enhanced flexibility.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

This is a challenge for everyone. Honestly, I think one of the major roadblocks to healthy eating is mindless eating. Another is stress eating. When pursuing a new dietary plan, it is really important to be intentional about what you are eating. You are making changes and change is always hard. If you are in the habit of eating an entire bag of potato chips in one sitting, be intentional about what you eat. Either don’t buy potato chips so you aren’t tempted, or put one serving of chips into a bowl, seal the bag, and don’t go back for more. Make the intention and follow through. I’m not a huge fan of restricted eating. I prefer to think of dieting in a positive way such as, “I am going to make healthy choices” rather than say, “I can’t have that.” I find that when I frame dietary changes in a way that is not a negative or restrictive state of mind, I adhere to those changes much better. Rather than telling myself I am giving up ice cream for dessert, I tell myself I will eat fruit for dessert. I find it all becomes much easier when I change my state of mind. When I feel stressed, or am extremely busy, I tend to be more likely to grab something calorically dense and bad for me…like a donut in the middle of a busy ER shift. To combat this, I try to decide what I am going to eat during a shift before I go on shift. I pack a granola bar or some grapes and then when I am starving, I can eat something quickly between patients. If I’m not starving, I’m less likely to tackle that box of donuts when it shows up in the work room!

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

This has been a tough year emotionally for everyone. Again, with emotional wellness, I don’t think that there is a one size fits all approach. I think for each individual, it is first important to identify things that create positive emotions and likewise, also determine what breeds negative emotions. Isolation, losing a patient, and conflict all increase my negative emotions. Unfortunately, negative feelings are a part of life; however, we can all choose how we deal with those negative emotions. When something bad happens, we each need to find ways to view the negative aspects through a new lens in order to promote happy emotions. For example, when I lose a patient, it is really, really difficult; however, the expectation is that I leave that patient’s room and move on instantaneously, in order to treat the many patients who are still waiting. I change my focus to my other patients so that I can cope until I have time to process the loss at a later time. One strategy to improve emotional wellness after a difficult event is to choose to focus on something else.

For me, my family, spending time with friends, and getting outside all create positive emotional feelings. If you can identify the things that help you feel happy, you can use those things to feel better when you are down or, more importantly, cultivate feelings of happiness even when you are not feeling sad. For example, I try to get outside regularly whether that is going for a walk, a run, or hiking in the mountains. Because I pursue these activities regularly, and know they make me happy, and I already wake up each day feeling positive because of these activities. This helps me feel grateful for the gifts I have, so that when something bad happens, I already am much more capable of dealing with the problem because I know there are other good things in my life.

As I said before, I think emotional wellness is also linked to physical wellness. Doing physical activities will release endorphins and enhance feelings of positivity. Runner’s high is a real phenomenon! That said, since I gave birth to my son, running hasn’t been an option given the healing process. My daily walks along our local river have been my source of sanity, particularly given the limitations of the pandemic. In another time, I would have sought gatherings with family and friends to combat the loneliness that can sometimes accompany being a new parent; however, this hasn’t been an option during the pandemic. I have sought other outlets to improve emotional wellness whether that has been a video call with a friend or game night with my husband. Given what a different and difficult year we have all just had, it is also important to be kind and forgiving to oneself. Sometimes, it is okay to feel whatever you are feeling, address those feelings, and then actively choose to move forward in a more positive way.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.

Goodness. A smile is certainly a powerful thing. It is amazing how much tension we carry in our faces, our jaw, our neck, and our shoulders. I see so many patients with severe headaches and neck pain all from carrying this tension due to heavy emotional burdens. If you can recognize that facial tension and physically release that tension through a smile, it can improve headache, neck pain, and overall wellbeing. When I’m doing a tough run and struggling toward the end, I make myself smile — it automatically releases my tension and gives me that burst of energy I need to finish. Likewise, massaging your jaw muscles, forehead, and neck can release tension. I’ve even read that practicing “facial yoga” can reduce the appearance of wrinkles!

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Spiritual wellness is probably the most personal type of wellness; it means something different to each person. I consider myself a spiritual person but I also think there are different aspects to spirituality. I think the most obvious habit is to connect with a spiritual community. For me, this means attending church and connecting with a religious community. This has been difficult for many over the last year though I will say I have really enjoyed attending virtual mass. I’ve been able to “visit” churches in my home state of Indiana as often as I’d like given that many religious services are now broadcast online.

Spirituality may have to do with self-reflection, for some, so one way to accomplish this introspection can be through unplugging. While it is great that we have the opportunity to connect with one another through social media, video chats, phones, email, and more, that connectivity can be exhausting. It can lead to dependence on approval from other people and distract us from our own spiritual wellness. I challenge myself, and my family, to never bring electronics to the dinner table. I personally try to disconnect from my phone whenever possible and for at least one hour per day. I may not have the fastest email response times on the planet, but I am happier because of it.

Given we are entering a new year, it is a time for self-reflection and many people engage in the practice of making new year’s resolutions. I would challenge everyone to make a resolution regarding spirituality. To resolve to do something unrelated to material or physical things and instead relating to what makes your soul feel whole. I see this as an opportunity to be better, to make sure I am a better human being tomorrow than I was today. This could be something as small as always holding the door open for another person coming into a building you are leaving, or as grand as starting a non-profit organization for an important cause. I would encourage everyone to try to better for yourself and for the people around you. If every person made small, positive changes in how they interact with the world around them, we would all be living in a much better world.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?

Nature is my place of healing. Whether I am SCUBA diving in the ocean or climbing to top of a mountain, I find peace and calm in the wild. I think so much of this is because I feel constantly scrutinized by humanity and when I go into nature, I know that the trees don’t care about how I look, how I walk…or what my singing sounds like! When I am in nature, I feel whole. Some people love the ocean, some love the deserts, and some the forests but ultimately, I think every person can find some happiness in nature. The natural world is also so humbling. Whether you get stuck in a terrible storm, are admiring the peaks in Yosemite Valley, or get chased by a bison in a national park, nature has lessons to teach about our fragility. Nature has certainly handed me a dose of humble pie on more than one occasion! I remember climbing Mount Whitney with my husband and saw a patch of ice. My husband, not wearing his glasses, missed it and slipped and fell on the ice, dislocating his shoulder. Luckily, I’m an ER doctor and was able to reduce his shoulder in the freezing cold, in the dark, on the side of Mount Whitney but it was still scary. I thought about what might have happened if I hadn’t been there to fix his shoulder…or if he’d had a worse injury. Sometimes, I think we need to be reminded of how small we are in the context of the universe and when I am challenged by the elements, I find fulfillment in a way I can’t get anywhere else.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The year 2020 was challenging in so many ways. I have been constantly reminded about how often we see the differences in one another. We focus on political party, race, religion, gender, whether we wear a mask, what kind of car we drive, what kind of house we live in, what school we went to, etc. Rather than focusing on our differences, I would love to see people really try to focus on our commonalities, to find ways to be kind to one another, and to help lift one another up. I would love to see kindness become a movement. Kindness would go a long way toward promoting universal wellness. As an ER doctor, I would love to see mask-wearing and vaccination be movements that are unanimously accepted so that we can all work toward ending this horrible pandemic. I care about promoting health, equality, kindness, and fairness. I would be thrilled to back any movement that promotes these qualities.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

There are so many amazing people doing amazing things! Melinda Gates, Amal Clooney, Gal Gadot, and Michelle Obama are all women I really admire. I would love to sit down with any of them to discuss their work in health, human rights, film, and tolerance. I think each of these amazing individuals is so powerful on her own but I can’t even begin to imagine what sort of problems they could solve together, if given the opportunity.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you so much for talking with me. Readers can listen to and subscribe to The Emergency Docs Podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can also connect with us on Instagram @theemergencydocs or my personal Instagram @alainaraja.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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