Dr. Anne Eacker of Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine: “Be gentle and compassionate with yourself”

Be gentle and compassionate with yourself: Don’t pretend or force feeling grateful. It’s not a good idea to practice this mindset if you’re nowhere near it. Or if it’s a new concept to you, it can be tough to implement it in your life like any other habit. If you’re struggling with the concept, it […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Be gentle and compassionate with yourself: Don’t pretend or force feeling grateful. It’s not a good idea to practice this mindset if you’re nowhere near it. Or if it’s a new concept to you, it can be tough to implement it in your life like any other habit. If you’re struggling with the concept, it can cause you stress or frustration with yourself, ultimately impacting you negatively.

As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.

What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?

One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Anne Eacker.

Anne Eacker, MD, is the Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs and an Associate Professor of Clinical Science at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine. She is a general internal medicine physician and focuses her efforts in Student Affairs on student mental health and well-being. She previously served as the Associate Dean for Student Affairs at the University of Washington School of Medicine; co-chaired both its Learning Environment Committee and the Anti-Racism Action Committee. At KPSOM she oversees all student support services and provides direct support and guidance to students as well.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?

I’m Dr. Anne Eacker, the Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine (KPSOM). Maximizing well-being has been a life-long interest of mine, including treating depression and preventing suicide. One of my primary motivations for this interest is that my mother was depressed and died by suicide when I was 10 years old.

I went to medical school after getting a psychology degree as an undergraduate. For several years after residency, I worked in primary care and also teaching medical students. Over time, I developed a scholarly interest in medical student burnout and well-being. I was able to work with a group of physicians who were doing projects in that area and my interest continued to grow both personally and professionally.

Since 2013, I’ve been working in Student Affairs supporting medical students as they experience the challenges of medical education and determining their career path, all while navigating other aspects of their lives. I came to KPSOM to build these support services at a new school and to try to deliver them in an equitable and inclusive way.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

While there’s not just one interesting story, my most satisfying moments are helping medical students navigate challenges, including failures, and seeing them emerge with a renewed commitment to themselves and their goals.

It is rewarding to see students figure out how to move forward and the skills they develop–and realizing they will be much better situated for handling other critical challenges down the road.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

One of my practices is to memorize poetry and recite it to myself when I can’t sleep at night or in other times of stress. I have many quotes and poems that inspire me in challenging moments, but what comes to mind right now is a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” I like this because there’s humor in it, and it’s one of the ways I like to cope in challenging times, which is to begin again, an option that is always available to us in each moment.

For myself, there are times I think, “I could have done better, advocated better, been more compassionate, listened better” — there’s a lot of rumination about not having done things perfectly. Thinking of this quote makes me realize that I don’t have to wait for tomorrow to start over, I could start over in the next minute or the next conversation.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?

One book I like related to well-being is called Just One Thing by Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist. It contains 52 different well-being practices that are quite brief. At a time when I was raising my kids, becoming a physician and administrator, trying to take care of myself, and feeling pressure from different angles, I would pick a chapter and use that practice for a week. It exposed me to a lot of different tools that I could use for managing my own well-being.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the projects I’m excited about is an aspect of our school program called R.E.A.C.H. (Reflection, Education, Assessment, Coaching, and Health and well-being) — building physician coaching into the KPSOM curriculum for our medical students. This includes developing a diverse group of physician faculty who have a deep understanding of well-being and resilience, to serve as coaches for students as they strive to be the best humans and physicians they can be.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are two people who I’m grateful for, and who continue as mentors. They played a pivotal role in my transition into my first significant leadership role. I was 28-years old when I started medical school and so at 35-years old, I started practice with toddler twins born during my second year of residency. At the time, I didn’t have a permanent faculty position, and a leadership role opened up for which these two more senior male colleagues believed I would be a fit. Rather than make a presumption that I could not take on the opportunity, they allowed me to make that decision for myself. That initial leadership role paved the way for the others.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?

Gratitude relies on the appreciation that we are never truly alone, and we do not operate independently in the world. We are always interdependent and interconnected. When you realize we’re part of a large and beloved community, the opportunity for gratitude arises from that understanding. The pandemic has made us feel isolated, and solitary, but truly we are not alone and we would not be where we are were it not for all the resources provided to us by others and by the universe –including the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Being intentional about gratitude can lead individuals to reestablish connections and help us emerge from the time period of the pandemic that has left many feeling lonely.

Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?

I want to acknowledge the fact that many folks have had challenging circumstances because of the pandemic, alongside structural racism and other forms of oppression, so there are many good reasons we may struggle to feel gratitude.

Because we are evolutionarily more likely to focus on how we may be in harm’s way, we naturally look out for threats to our survival on a daily basis. We may also overinterpret our surroundings as threatening because of our past lived experiences. To overcome structural issues in our society and to make change happen, we have to take care of ourselves for the journey ahead.

Gratitude can help us shift that outlook from one of fearfulness to appreciation of the present moment and to the goodness available to us since we are not naturally inclined to focus on what is going well.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?

Gratitude is one of the practices where there is good evidence that it improves your overall well-being. You can impact others two to three degrees of separation from you when you’re in a positive state. When you practice gratitude and strengthen your own well-being, you’re building up the resources of your community. We aren’t all islands, and we aren’t all individuals operating in silos; we have impact on each other. If we want to build up communities, we need to build up ourselves, too.

Also, gratitude for those aspects of life which are freely available is the most powerful — our significant personal connections, the sunset, our physical and mental health, the opportunities we are presented.

Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?

Implementing gratitude behaviors into your daily routine has a plethora of benefits. The first is that it improves your mood. By regularly practicing it, it can lower rates of stress and depression and lead you to an overall happier state of life. Having this optimistic outlook can also guide you to improving social connections between friends, family, peers and coworkers. Gratitude has a lasting effect on your mental wellness that leaves you feeling engaged, connected, and worthy of happiness.

I want to emphasize that practicing gratitude for those with a mental health diagnosis such as anxiety or depression is not a substitute for medication or therapy or other important interventions, but it might augment those other treatments.

Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?

Increase your observation of things that you are grateful for: The experience alone of actively thinking about what you’re grateful for, even if you can’t find something, is actually good for your well-being. What most people find, even if they’re in a dark and challenging place, is that it might take a few days to notice something they’re grateful about. It’s the persistence that allows them to find that one thing, which will enable them to discover other things they’re grateful for. And if you are really struggling, you also may want to seek out a therapist or a physician to determine if a mental health condition may be present.

Make gratitude a practiced habit: An exercise I can recommend is Dr. Martin Seligman’s “Three Good Things” practice. It’s been adopted by many and can be done in five minutes. You can do it every day for two weeks, and it will have well-being benefits that can last up to six months. This is a good way for people to try it out and see if it works for them.

Reflect on your gratitude: Take stock of people in your life and write a letter reflecting to one of them outlining the impact they’ve had on you. You’ll be surprised how this makes not only the recipient feel good, but you as well.

Express your gratitude: While your personal reflection of your gratitude can remain private, expressing your gratitude can be a mood booster. It feels good to share positive feelings with others, and the act of expressing gratitude is associated with release of neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, offering a great impact on your mental wellness.

Be gentle and compassionate with yourself: Don’t pretend or force feeling grateful. It’s not a good idea to practice this mindset if you’re nowhere near it. Or if it’s a new concept to you, it can be tough to implement it in your life like any other habit. If you’re struggling with the concept, it can cause you stress or frustration with yourself, ultimately impacting you negatively.

Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?

There are other practices beyond gratitude that can help you when you’re feeling this way. Just by experiencing your feelings instead of avoiding them will help tremendously. If we can identify where the anxiety or sadness is felt in our body, for example, and breathe through and into that place, the feelings will dissipate in a matter of 90 seconds to two minutes. Just allowing instead of resisting and pushing those feelings away is powerful. And then call a friend, reach out.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?

I like the Ten Percent Happier podcast with Dan Harris. He interviews folks around mindfulness and well-being practices.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Learning how to be present in the moment when you’re with someone is extremely powerful. If we could try to avoid distractions and provide our full attention to one another a little more, we would be giving a true gift to each other. Being truly heard can help each of us to find a path forward.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

If you go to my bio on the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine website, you can keep up with my professional work and find a list of peer-reviewed publications and educational materials I have worked on.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.