Welcome to Exploring Wellness, a three part exploration by Dr. Janet Roseman on how medical students and residents can center their own well-being. This series starts with Part 1: Why Wellness Counts…Your wellness, that is
Whether you are beginning medical school or find yourself in the midst of medical school angst, chances are high that you probably have not considered the topic of wellness. Not patient wellness – your wellness. Although this profession is dedicated to serving others, it is ironic that most physicians in training, as well as practicing physicians, do not make their own self-care a priority. Please read this next sentence aloud: you cannot serve from an empty vessel.
In the next columns, we will explore wellness together in the hopes that, when you find yourself in the midst of stress (and there is no getting around stress without tools), you will pull out these columns as a reminder that your wellness matters not because I said so but because you honor yourself. The mythology that physicians need to ignore their own needs in favor of others has been repeated so long that it has gained traction. However, you cannot help others, and change a culture that has prided itself on ignoring the self, without effort and attention. There are significant and real repercussions that can occur when you don’t attend to your own needs, including poor health, compassion fatigue, anxiety, depression, and even suicide. Reach out to any resources at your medical school or hospital if you find yourself in trouble or if you see a colleague who needs some support. In order for you to be the catalyst for healthy change of this dysfunctional culture, who facilitates compassionate, kind, and heart-based interactions with patients (and others), you need to recognize that offering humanistic interactions begins with you.
The emotional strain that medical students and residents experience is real, but it is rare that they receive any type of education that honors their own spirits. Because of the pressures of schooling throughout years of training, young physicians do not always have models that support their need for relaxation and thoughtful reflection during this time. Choose calm over chaos as a lifestyle choice and you will be surprised by its rewards in return. When you slow down and are mindful of your actions, then you can also bring a greater sense of presence to the people you touch literally and figuratively in your life.
Granted, medical school, the residency years, and professional doctoring is challenging. However, I remember what one medical student astutely told me: “it’s tough in residency – it can be really awful – but you are a better doctor if you take care of yourself. My mentors are my favorite physicians whom I try to emulate. They are people who, when you are with them, you are with them – even when they are busy and frazzled. You can tell that they have ways of doing it through body language, through eye contact, through silence, or communicating that they are with you.” During medical school training, it’s easy to get into a self-neglectful mode with lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and pressure to be perfect. It can be comfortable to lock yourself up in your room, studying without allowing opportunities for nurturance with family and friends. However, when you value yourself, then it’s a lot easier to value others.
How do you do that? It’s actually not as difficult as you may think. Lack of time is the frequent verse heard from most medical students and physicians; however, it doesn’t take an enormous amount of time to tend to yourself. Here is a helpful exercise for you to create your own wellness plan. On a sheet of paper, draw a circle and label three sections: Mind, Body, and Spirit. In each area, write down, without thinking, what you presently do for yourself in each of these areas. Then try to make a list of at least five action-oriented activities you can do for yourself that will take two hours or less. When you are finished, look at your list and select activities in each area that you can easily invite into your schedule. Place at least two activities in your calendar as part of your regular weekly schedule, and keep a diary to record how you felt during this week. It is also encouraged for you to keep a diary or journal during your years in medical school, so you can have a record of how much you have learned and grown not only as a future physician but as a person.
Activities that medical students and residents have told me have helped them: visiting the gym, running, walking every day after school, long showers or baths, buying healthy snacks that are available during long study or hospital hours, breathing slowly to help remind themselves that they are centered and in their bodies before taking a test or seeing a patient, sleep, aromatherapy, playing with their animal friends, baking a cake, making dinner once a week for family/friends, swimming, receiving manicures and pedicures, massage appointments, facial appointments, playing basketball, reading a book just for fun, attending religious or spiritual services, meditation, dancing, singing, playing music. What will you do?
Remember that the current path you are on is not infinite and that the challenges of medical school and residency will end. You will have a life with more freedom again, and the key is recognizing that you can set the stage for healthy self-care choices that can carry you into your professional career. It just begins with you making the choice that you do matter.
Dr. Janet Lynn Roseman is an assistant professor in Integrative Medicine at Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine, Health Professions Division, Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale. There she specializes in spirituality and medicine and teaches courses in humanism in medicine. She is the Founding Director for the Sidney Project in Spirituality and Medicine and Compassionate Care™, a unique residency education program.
She was awarded the Presidents Award from Lesley University for her work in oncology and was the second person in the world to be named a fellow in the Spirituality and Medicine fellowship at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. Her research on compassion and spirituality has been published in numerous journals, and she edits an ongoing section on spirituality and medicine for the Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine.
A published author, her most recent book offers empowerment for people with cancer: If Joan of Arc Had Cancer: Finding Courage, Faith and Healing from History’s Most Inspirational Woman Warrior (New World Library)