Everyone in every profession has to cope with stress. Some stress in the workplace is normal; it can be the factor that provides us with the energy and motivation we need to stay creative and productive. But too much stress can be toxic and have negative consequences.

Few people realize just how much stress we, as physicians, live with.

From the myriad stresses associated with getting into and graduating medical school, to clinical training in a hospital, to dealing with the emotions inherent in doctor-patient relationships, to guarding against wrongful malpractice suits, to unreasonable workloads, to the pursuit of financial freedom, stress can closely follow—and eventually catch up with—some physicians. The result of our job stress can lead to burnout, poor health, depression, substance abuse, ruined relationships, and even injury.

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If you can’t take care of yourself, how do you expect to take care of your patients?

The wrong ways to cope

Coping strategies with a high risk of emotional exhaustion include keeping the stress to yourself, continuing to ignore it as if nothing is happening, and pushing yourself too hard to get more things done than is practical. Such coping mechanisms are inefficient and can be classified as a denial response to your stress.

What to do?

First, determine what stresses you out. Keep a stress journal for a week. Record what event or which people increased your stress level. Note how each situation made you feel, how you responded, and what you wish were different. Then review your journal, and adjust situations accordingly. When you know your stressors and can distinguish patterns, you will be able to recognize your stress triggers and be better able to plan ways to avoid them.

The right ways to cope

Here are some tips for reducing your stress:

  • Leave it at the office— Don’t take the pain of other people’s problems home with you.
  • Meditate— According to a study of primary care physicians reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, meditation has been shown to improve mood and decrease feelings of burnout, decrease feelings of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, and improve feelings of personal accomplishment and patient empathy.
  • Exercise— Regular exercise improves your mood and naturally lowers the symptoms of anxiety and stress.
  • Stay positive—Try to remember that you are helping others. Feel good about what you are doing.
  • Say “no” more often—Slow down. You don’t have to take on every case.
  • Give yourself adequate breaks— Take a brisk walk outside. Try to remember to pause to enjoy the view along the way.
  • Take regularly scheduled days off— You are not a machine that needs to work every business day of the year.
  • Develop a support system— Family and friends can comfort and advise.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew— Sometimes, say to yourself: “this just isn’t going to get done today,” and work on accepting it.

Oh, and tell the people you love that you love them. Don’t let work stress cut you off from your spouse or partner, your family, and your friends.


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