Doctors know the importance of maintaining physical health, but it’s time they start treating their emotional health and physical health like twins, said Guy A. Winch, PhD, during Saturday’s Jim and Midge Breeden Lecture.
“We get injured psychologically, just as much as we do physically,” Dr. Winch said. “Injuries like rejection and failure could get worse if we ignore them, and they can impact our lives in dramatic ways.”
Psychological health has a detrimental impact on the ability to not just be happy in life but also perform jobs well and effectively, he said.
Dr. Winch shared several ways physicians can spend more time monitoring and improving their emotional health during his President’s Program lecture, “The Science of Healing Thy ’Self.”
Physicians, in particular, have high-stress jobs that bring rumination and the tendency to stew over issues, said Dr. Winch, a licensed psychologist and author of “Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts.”
Focusing on the negative can lead to disconnection at home and more serious problems such as alcohol addiction, eating disorders, and cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Winch recommended using the “adaptive” kind of self-reflection that involves problem solving and taking action instead of the non-adaptive form of self-reflection, which he referred to as a dangerous “emotional hamster wheel.”
“Take 30 minutes, do the problem solving,” he said. “Figure out who you’re going to speak to tomorrow, what meetings you’re going to have and how you’re going to address the issues that are upsetting you. Figure out a plan, because we know from research, once you have a very specific plan about things that are troubling you, it’s easy to put them aside.”
Dr. Winch said rumination is often a habit that is hard to break, but it is also vulnerable to any distraction that requires concentration. He suggested taking a few minutes to do a crossword puzzle or playing a game to break the habit.
Loneliness is another psychological injury that is incredibly damaging, he said. After wrapping up a day filled with work, meetings and phone calls, doctors can feel depleted and find they don’t have a lot of energy left to be engaged in their family life, leaving them feeling lonely. For example, a doctor will be sitting around a dinner table but can’t recall the conversation they just had.
“With loneliness, the distortion is that our relationships appear much less valuable to us than they actually are,” he said. “What you need to do if you’re feeling lonely, is A: realize that what your mind is telling you is incorrect and B: if you reach out to a friend, think back to the last time you had a great time with them and relive that experience. When you have a smile on your face, that’s when you should text them.”
Dr. Winch also suggested putting down cell phones and shutting off the TV to have a real conversation with your spouse to reconnect.
There is a societal stigma in the medical world that stress is “just part of the job” and if a doctor can’t handle it, there’s something wrong with them, he said.
“That’s an underlying issue that prevents physicians from not only asking for help, but acknowledging to themselves that they need it, which is ludicrous,” he said.
“It has to start with recognition that you’re having emotional stress. If you can’t identify that, then you can’t get help.”
Signs of stress include coming home and being short-tempered, irritable, and on edge in addition to not being “present” for family members.
To relieve stress, consider delegating responsibilities and finding a safe zone or hobby that relives stress, such as yoga or painting. Emotional health should be treated like a twin to physical health, he said.
“What do people hear when they’re depressed? ‘Oh, just shake it off, it’s all in your head,’” Dr. Winch said. “Can you imagine saying that to somebody with a broken leg? ‘Oh, just walk it off, it’s all in your leg.’ We need to take our psychological health as seriously as we do our physical health, and this is especially true for physicians.”
Breeden Lecture Streaming Colloquia Video