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Physicians, Prepare Yourself for the Long Haul

As a physician on the front lines, facing COVID-19, there is no question that you are being called to step up in myriad ways that you may feel unprepared for. On the other hand, you have also been facing uncertainty, challenge, and the seemingly impossible your entire career. Now more than ever, you will need to lean into that experience & wisdom, trusting that you are ready for this.

That being said, there will undoubtedly be anxieties and fears along the way, and your thoughts and emotions are likely to fluctuate from one extreme to another. That is human nature and it is to be expected. At the same time, you must keep in mind that if you allow yourself to be swept away by fear and threat, the consequences can be great. A chronic, persistent stress state can negatively impact your immunity, your sleep, and your ability to access your higher level of thinking (reason, problem solving, impulse control, creativity and perseverance) - all of which you genuinely need right now.

So, as you prepare yourself for the potential onslaught of COVID-19 patients, I hope that you will consider scheduling in some strategies for finding your calm and focus, managing your stress, and summoning your grit, courage, and perseverance.

The following exercises will help you to do just that:

1. When you are aware that your emotions are all erratic, simply take a moment and count 10 deep breaths, with the exhale lasting longer than the inhale. Complete these 10 breaths before taking any action. This gives you 1-2 minutes during which the surge of stress hormones will dissipate. This will provide you the time and presence of mind to formulate a reasonable & thoughtful plan, and to avoid any regrettable, stress-induced reactions.

2. Create a positive future story that you can call upon to reignite your hope for the future. This optimism is associated with rising levels of dopamine, which engages the brain and keeps you actively moving toward that brighter future.

3. Follow a sleep routine. At the end of the day, choose a pleasant activity that brings your day to a peaceful end. Equally important is eliminating stress-inducing activities such as watching the news or vigorous exercise.

4. Deny the drama and avoid getting caught up in the what-if’s and theatrical reactions which will fire up the amygdala (fear center) and get the prefrontal cortex off its game.

5. Move your body every day. Consider getting that movement out in nature as an added boost.

6. Find ways to express your gratitude. Focusing on positive emotions, such as gratitude, diminishes fear & anxiety and activates your prefrontal cortex.

7. Offer & receive physical contact. Physical contact soothes the brain with calming inhibitory peptides, increases our sense of well-being, enhances sleep, inspires us to work together for a common purpose, increases immunity, and diminishes stress.

We need 8 hugs a day! This may prove to be a bit more difficult during this time of social distancing, so it’s particularly important to prioritize it. The wonderful thing is that pets count (so go ahead and nuzzle your dog or cat), and you even get the same physiologic benefit from giving yourself a little squeeze. In addition, you can achieve a similar effect by telling people you LOVE them, soaking in a hot tub, meditating while focusing on others, sharing a meal, or simply listening intently to a friend.

We don’t know how long this battle will persist, so prepare yourself for the long haul. Make yourself a priority now. You deserve it and your patients are counting on it.

Be Well and Godspeed!