Why building your resilience will make you a better physician

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Physicians’ jobs are stressful. As the recent CMA National Physician Health Survey reported, it’s not unusual for doctors to feel burned out and depressed. But building and protecting your resilience—how you react to tough situations—can make an important difference to your ability to bounce back and to care for yourself and others. You need to imagine resilience as your “energy” bank: if you make too many demands on it, you will not be able to withstand something that normally requires only a small amount of your energy reserve. That’s the advice VPSA members heard at psychologist Marie-Hélène Pelletier’s October 30 workshop.

Dr. Pelletier began her presentation by underlining the importance of mental, physical and financial health and their interconnectedness and then dove into the warning signs that a person’s resilience is suffering.

“These include sleep problems (your mind spinning), impatience, irritability, anger, low concentration, difficulty making decisions, sadness or feeling nothing, worry, excessive use of alcohol, medication, or drugs, and just not feeling your usual self,” she said.

How to build your resilience

“Research has identified seven lifestyle factors that have the potential to significantly improve your resilience,” continued Dr. Pelletier.

  1. Exercise: Often the first thing that goes when you get busy, yet one of the most important habits to build and maintain. Dr. Pelletier recommended committing to a realistic exercise schedule, even if it’s only 15 minutes a day.
  2. Nutrition: Diet has a strong effect on mental health. Eating more fish, oils and leafy vegetables can lower your risk of depression. Gradually changing your diet can affect long-term positive mental health changes.
  3. Relationships: An absence of meaningful connections puts us at risk of both physical and psychological challenges. Schedule and protect times with others was Dr. Pelletier’s advice.
  4. Time in nature: Go further than your front yard… we need to spend time in our forests and parks.
  5. Make a contribution or provide service: This can be formal volunteering or simply helping a friend. Contribution and service are part of a physician’s everyday work, but this is not quite the same, warned Dr. Pelletier. It needs to be something different from your job.
  6. Recreational and enjoyable activities: We all need to have something we love to do outside of our work.
  7. Spirituality: Those who make spirituality part of their lives have higher resilience.

Workplaces play a large role in supporting and maintaining the resilience of their staff members. Employers, Dr. Pelletier noted, should not add to employees’ burdens; rather they should have tools to help us cope. Canadian employees recently reported workplace stress as the primary cause of their mental health concerns she said. Resources are available from the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Dr. Pelletier also touched on applying some basic principles of cognitive behavioural research that can produce positive results, noting that we all bring beliefs and biases to a situation based on our life experiences. What we need to do, she advised, is overcome unhelpful thinking patterns such as focusing only on the negatives, blaming ourselves, or personalizing or disqualifying the positive. We need learn to recognize and challenge unhelpful thinking styles.

The workshop was met with enthusiasm: 96 per cent of participants surveyed left believing they have a great understanding of how they can build their resilience and planned to include at least one resilience-building strategy by the following week.

“I feel supported by the knowledge that others in my field face similar challenges regarding their work-life balance,” said one physician.

VPSA offers regular wellness opportunities. Visit our Upcoming Events page to learn more.

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