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Building Resilience – Tips for Active and Retired Physicians

Building Resilience – Tips for Active and Retired Physicians

By Steven Smith, Ph.D and Sandra Hough, Ph.D.
The Woodland Group
(LMS Physician Wellness Program)

We’re all familiar with the phrases of “I’m running on fumes,” “I’m drained” or “I’m wiped out” when we feel we don’t have much energy. When our energy is low, it can be difficult to think clearly, perform tasks well and even bounce back, all of which are good indications that our resilience is low.

Research has shown that while some people are naturally more resilient than others, resilience can be learned and practiced. Increasing our resilience acts as a buffer during challenging times, enabling us to cope with stress more effectively. Having more energy means you have a greater capacity to handle whatever comes up. By building greater resilience capacity you’ll be better prepared, have greater flexibility, make smarter decisions and keep a cool head in challenging situations or with adversity.

Emotions are an area where many of us tend to waste a lot of energy unnecessarily and deplete our internal reserves. Feelings like frustration, anger, resentment and anxiety deplete us of energy. Additionally, cortisol and other stress hormones are released, which can disrupt our ability to get renewing sleep and diminish our ability to focus.

Lack of physical self-care can result in inadequate sleep, lack of exercise, a poor diet, and chronic pain can be huge energy leaks that weaken our ability to withstand demands and weaken our resilience.

Cognitively, where we put our focus has a huge influence on our resilience and our emotions. When our focus is not on our “now,” our minds tend to be either worrying about the future or replaying the past. When we allow our focus to drift to a painful past or worrisome future, our nervous system responds as though a threat is imminent, releasing stress hormones that tax our energy system.  

Whether you’re going through a tough time now or you want to be prepared for the next one, here are 12 great strategies you can use to strengthen your resilience.

1)  Develop a strong social network. Isolation is not your friend because you are wired for social connection. It’s very important to nurture and develop connections with others. Those social bonds provide a source of support, helping to protect you from slipping into anxiety or depression during challenging times. Asking for help and accepting support from those who care about you strengthens resilience.

2)  Practice gratitude. Writing down 3 things you are grateful for each day trains your mind to focus on what you have, rather than what might be lacking. Research shows that people who practice being grateful show significantly higher levels of happiness and psychological well-being. Intentionally being grateful helps you to savor life’s joys by amplifying and focusing on the abundance in your life.

3)  Acknowledge your successes. It’s easy to brush away small successes and to rush to the next challenge in your path. However, every step counts and quiet confidence is built when you allow yourself to see your history of successes as evidence that you can reach the goals you set in life. Make it a point to celebrate your every accomplishment and each successful step you take along the way. Give yourself a pat on the back daily for the things you did that made a positive difference in your life of the lives of others.

4)  Practice self-compassion. Most people are harder on themselves than they are on others. The medical profession is challenging enough without you adding to your load with self-judgment. We all fall short at times and are often disappointed when we do. However, compassion allows for imperfection and is an aspect of self-care. You can support yourself by compassionately accepting your limitations and directing your attention to your strengths. In like manner, treating others with compassion increases tolerance and patience in challenging situations. It acts as a buffer for frustration and irritation.

5)  Connect with nature. When you get a chance, get outside and take in the beauty that surrounds you. Being in nature is a very restorative practice. Take a walk when you have low energy or rest when you feel overwhelmed. Listen to the birds, admire the cloud-filled sky, and be in awe of the amazing natural world. Connecting with nature is a very grounding experience that can recharge your depleted energy reservoirs. Because your senses are engaged when outdoors, it naturally brings you into the present and gives your mind and nervous system a much-needed break.

6)  Put bumper guards on your screen time. It can be very tempting to use your down time scrolling on a phone or pad. However, the constant stimulation that screens provide do not give you the off ramp that you need when taking a break. Turn off unnecessary notifications. Set limits on your use of social media and use an app that will show you how much time you are giving to recreational screen time. Once you know, then decide how much time you are willing to give to your screens and set firm boundaries to honor what you know works best for you.

7)  Focus on what’s within your control. Resilient people spend their time and energy focusing on situations and events that they have control over. Putting your efforts where you can have the most impact increases confidence, whereas worrying about uncontrollable events is a recipe for powerlessness. In the end, what you have the most control over is your reaction to what happens to you. When you manage how you respond to what comes your way, you feel more empowered and experience a greater sense of control.

The Worry Stopper is a useful exercise is to write down all of the concerns and worries in your life and place them under one of two columns—those things you can control, and those you cannot. Once done, take a look at your list and decide which items outside your control you want to release, freeing up time and energy to direct to those items on your list that are within your control.

8)  Maintain a positive focus. The way in which you talk to yourself can also deplete your internal resources. Critical self-talk and negative narratives you create about yourself, others, and the world can make you cynical and pessimistic, working against you by depleting your internal resources. Try to notice what is working in your life. Optimists and pessimists are looking at the same world, but their focus is vastly different. It’s important to visualize what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear as you move toward your goals. By maintaining a positive focus in the present and a hopeful view of the future, you ward off negative thoughts work against your sense of well-being.

Being mindful of whom you choose to be around is also important. Hanging out with upbeat people rejuvenates your energy levels and helps you to maintain a positive focus.

9)  Be present. Regularly engage in an activity that brings you in touch with the here and now. This can be done with numerous mindfulness exercises, meditation, mindful breathing, yoga, prayer, and other practices that orient you to the present. Simply giving yourself 10 minutes of quiet time can be an excellent way to connect within, quiet your mind, and to ground yourself in the present moment. Slow your breathing to a comfortable rhythm and just “be.”

Focusing on your sensory system is an excellent way to orient to your present experience. The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique is a good way to do this. In this exercise, you acknowledge 5 things you see in your immediate environment; touch 4 things on or around you; listen to 3 different sounds you can identify; try to detect 2 different smells or fragrances; and be aware of one thing you can taste in your mouth. End the exercise with a few long, cleansing breaths.

10) Observe rather than evaluate. Defusion is a technique where you create space between you and your thoughts by observing them rather than attaching to them, noticing rather than obsessing. For example, “I notice I am having the thought that I made some mistakes in the speech I gave today,” is quite different than, “I really messed up my speech today.” Rather than attaching to a negative story that you tell yourself, you notice that you’re having the negative thought and claim it as simply that—a thought, not a truth or reality.   

11) Protect yourself by setting boundaries. Be aware of your limitations of time and energy. Resist people-pleasing behavior that consistently puts the needs of others before your own. No one else can take care of you but you. Practice setting limits and saying “no.”

12) Practice self-care. When stress creeps in, good habits often go by the wayside. Eating poorly, ignoring exercise, and not getting enough sleep are common reactions when feeling overwhelmed, where it can be all too easy to neglect your own needs. Strengthening your body with proper care can help it to adapt to stress and reduce the toll of energy-depleting emotions like anxiety or depression.

You can build resilience. Work with one or two of the above strategies and give yourself the gift of more energy for 2022!

Written by Sandra Hough, Ph.D. and Steven, Smith, Ph.D. with The Woodland Group. The Woodland Group provides counseling for all LMS active and retired physicians. This service is free as a benefit of membership through LMS. If you need additional support at any time, please utilize this resource by calling 859-255-4864.