I had the honor of speaking at the American College of Surgeons this week on a panel about stressors clinicians have control over i.e. can modify. I was assigned a topic I had not really thought about before – which meant I learned a lot! After the talk, there were many people who came up to me and asked if they could have my slides… so here they are!
This is a really important concept… worry is an intrusive thought, which means it just pops in your head. And it’s unpleasant, so you worry about worrying!
Another important point here – worrying is always about something in the future (as opposed to rumination, which is always about the past)
These are the two main ways worrying helps us – motivation and emotional buffering. The motivation part is pretty obvious. Emotional buffering is also obvious, but I didn’t have a name for it before. Take for example worrying that you will fail a test. If you end up getting a good grade on the test it is somehow even more exciting… but, if you do poorly your disappointment is somehow buffered.
And then I tackled the next question… what to do when worry begins to spiral.
I introduced this validated tool to see if your worrying has crossed the line to problematic or pathologic.
And pointed out that if worry is causing you to suffer, it’s a problem.
The way to deal with problematic worry is to try to return it to the kind of worrying that helps us, which we can do with any action to control what we are worried about. Worried about a test? Make a plan for how and when to study. Worried about a relationship? Plan to meet or pick up the phone to talk. Again – no matter what your are worried about – do something to create a plan to address the worry.
But despite our best efforts, the spiral of worry can land us in a bad place. If you find you have anything on this list (or if you are really suffering), it’s pathologic worry.
It’s super important that you act – quickly. This is your amygdala trying to hijack your brain! (Remember flight-flight-freeze?) If you don’t derail it quickly, it will continue to spiral and land you in a world of anxiety. In other words, follow all the steps for problematic worry – but if it doesn’t work, don’t wait. Get help.
We’ve all been there (yes, all of us). Something happens and we can’t stop thinking about it. It can be a complication, a misdiagnosis, something that happened in a toxic work environment, a failed exam, a harsh word. Not being able to let go of these thoughts means you are a normal person who cares… but it is not comfortable.
It will stop. At the time you are caught in the spiral of rumination, it seems unending. But it can’t and won’t last forever.
You are not your thoughts. There are your thoughts (and this annoying thought in particular) and then there is “you”. Hold that thought (then see below).
Don’t make it worseby yelling. It’s human nature to try to push an uncomfortable thought or image out of your mind. But it doesn’t work. Yelling at yourself (in your mind) because you are not able to move past the thought/event makes it even worse.
Get curious. Berating yourself makes it worse, but there is a way to disarm the thought and even make it go away:
When the thought arises, just notice it.
Wait….if “you” are noticing it, then the thought isn’t “you”.
Every single time the thought arises, say to yourself “I’m thinking about it again.” But – and this is the most important thing – when you notice that the painful thought is back, you have to notice it without judgment. Not… “I can’t believe I can’t let go of this thought.”…or “Something must be wrong with me.”… Just “There it is again.”
Mindfulness. The practice of noticing without judgment is called mindfulness. There are good data that an informal practice of mindfulness helps when we find ourselves with a thought that won’t let go. A daily practice helps even more. Set aside just 10 minutes and sit still. Just notice everything that comes up, acknowledge it, and don’t judge. Ditto for the next thought, and the next, and the next…
Here are some links if you’d like to learn more about mindfulness:
Every year about this time, I try to put together a list for people trying to find the right gift for someone they know who is graduating from medical school.
If you haven’t heard of @medgradwishlist on Twitter, it’s an amazing grassroots effort to create Amazon wish lists for URM medical students with financial needs to help them get ready for their internship. This is a brilliant “pay it forward” initiative. I’ve been a Program Director and a Dean of Student Affairs and I know how many new grads finish medical school with enormous debt and empty bank accounts. The ~17,000 students graduating from medical school this year are about to start on the exciting – but stressful – path of becoming a physician. Not being able to afford the things that make that journey possible just isn’t acceptable. You can buy things on their list anonymously (or not). When you find the right thing for the right person, don’t forget to include some memories of your internship, advice, and words of encouragement!
If you are a student (or even a struggling resident) in need, please join this effort to get what you need. We are sure you will pay it forward to extend this support future classes! If you are a student who can afford to support others, please do. And regardless of whether you participate in #medgradwishlist or not, the following ideas will help with graduation presents.
I spent quite a bit of time looking at all the #medgradwishlists on Amazon, and I’m happy to share what I learned. In addition to their great ideas, I have some suggestions to add…
Instant Pot. This was on a lot of the Amazon lists, and I agree!!! II had to suggest one item to make life as a resident easier, it would be this. Several people asked for air fryers on their Amazon lists. I love my air fryer and use it all the time so please put it on your list if you think it will help. Just as an FYI, you already (sort of) own an air fryer since your oven set on convection does close to the same thing!
Someone to help clean and do laundry. I know you can’t put this on an Amazon wish list, but if you have a family member who either can do this for you, or pay someone to do this for you, it’s one of the best gifts you will ever receive.
Digital gifts to make communicating and studying easier. The single most important tool for an intern is their phone. If they don’t have a new phone that can reliably work with WIFi and cellular, this should be at the top of the list. A computer that works, has the ability to do streaming well, and is reliable is also key since it’s how they will study, write, and watch educational videos. They’ll want the flexibility of studying in a coffee shop (once we get COVID19 under control) or on their couch so make sure it’s a laptop and not a desktop computer.
There were some great ideas on the Amazon lists for items that aren’t quite as expensive as computers that you might consider as well: ring light for Zoom meetings, LED study light, lap top desk for your lap, iPad Pro, Apple pencil.I should add that buying a large quantity of pens to be “borrowed” by attendings would be a big win, too.
The kitchen (other than the Instant Pot). It’s so important to eat well when you work as hard as interns work (and to stay well caffeinated). There were some great ideas from my new colleagues on their Amazon lists including single serve coffee makers, pot and pan sets, nonstick bakeware set (if they are a baker!), wine opener :-), food storage bags and containers. A box or two of Kind Bars (my favorite) or other meal replacement bars is a great gift, too. And for the times cooking is just one task too many – Door Dash, Uber Eats, and/or Grub Hub gift cards are a great gift. One other must have… a Yeti mug to keep coffee hot during rounds!
Clocks and watches. We all have phones that can serve as alarm clocks, but an alarm clock that gently lights up the room is a much better way to wake up than sudden noise. I wouldn’t say an Apple watch is essential (and if you do a lot of procedures it might be easy to lose) but it is worn by a good percentage of docs.
USMLE3 study book. If you are a family member who is thinking about getting this as a present, you might also want to include a check for $895 as a “bookmark” to cover the cost of registering for this exam.
Make your home a stress-free zone. If you are setting up a new home, this list can be really extensive. You’ll need to go home to a clean, happy space, so whatever you can do to make that happen is important. There were a lot of good ideas in the Amazon wish lists including self-cleaning cat boxes, pet hair removal brushes, furniture, shower curtains, towels, and a video doorbell. I’d add a Roomba vacuum cleaner to this list, too! BTW, a good TV is important, too. We all need to binge watch the Great British Baking Show as therapy sometimes.
Sleep. In this category I would include good quality pillows, a new mattress, light blocking curtains, white noise machines, and electric or weighted blankets.
Music. Most people fill their space at home with sound as well as light, so think about good WiFi speakers like Sonos and/or gift certificates for ad-free music services like Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora.
Health. Last but not least! The most important thing on this list in my opinion is a great water bottle since, particularly with masks on all day, none of us drink enough water. A new Sonicare toothbrush or WaterPik for dental health will be appreciated. Foot care is another important part of being a healthy resident, so consider gifting compression socks, new shoes for the hospital, work insoles and/or a foot massager. Anything that promotes or makes fitness easier is also a good gift – a new bicycle for commuting, workout gloves, free weights, resistance bands. You might also consider a meditation app like Headspace, or subscription to yoga classes on line.
p.s. What NOT to buy or ask for…
Scrubs. I noticed a lot of folx asking for scrubs. Nope – don’t do it! You will be required to wear the scrubs from the hospital since there are rules about them being washed in the hospital laundry. Ditto for things to wear under scrubs. You’ll get too hot, they get dirty, and they are against the rules in all operating rooms (and many hospitals)
Textbooks. You are pretty much guaranteed to have access to a library where these books will be in digital format and free. These books are heavy! You aren’t going to take them to work and when you get home, you may have other things to read that take priority.
Printers. Printers (and printer ink) are expensive and you just won’t use them. You are going to have to stay digital to really learn what you need to learn as a resident. Besides, if you do need to print out the return slip for Amazon, there will always be a printer at the hospital you can use!
Black bag. If you are a family member thinking of getting one of these… don’t.
May your journey through this liminal time be as stress free and as joyful as possible. May every day as an intern bring you hearts to heal and hands to hold, new learning, and a sense of wonder and awe.
We are so happy you are joining us in this noble and sacred work!
Every year about this time, I create a list of presents I think busy healers (and healers in training) would appreciate. I don’t have to tell you that this has been a year that for all of us, but especially for everyone in medicine, has brought a new level of stress and sadness. The healers need healing… and in that spirit, here are some ideas of what you can send your friends in medicine for Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas, the Winter Solstice… or to celebrate the end of 2020 and beginning of a new year of hope.
#10.White coat, jacket and/or scrub “bling”. Everyone who works in a hospital has a badge that must be worn all the time. And we all need pens (except for the attendings… we just “borrow” pens that students and residents keep in their pockets for us … just kidding … mostly). Here are some suggestions: Find a lanyard or badge holder from their favorite sports team or that will otherwise have meaning for them. Buy a box of cheap pens (that can be given away to needy attendings) + a great pen that will remind them of you every time they write with it. For white coats, find a meaningful or humorous pin that could be worn on other clothes as well.
#9 Happy Feet. Think about putting together a “happy feet” box – include things like warm slippers, good socks, a certificate for a pair of shoes to wear in the hospital, compression socks, toenail clippers, and any other foot care products that sounds right.
#8 Better sleep. Sleep can be hard if you have had a really hard stretch at work. It’s especially hard if you’ve worked all night and have to sleep during the day. You can put together a combination of gifts like new high-count sheets, eye covers and ear plugs for sleeping after a night shift, a certificate for a new mattress, a white noise machine or a weighted blanket.
#7 Work food. Busy students and residents frequently miss meals. Think about creating home made “snack packs” for the hospital by combining options like nuts, dried fruits, and high quality candy into small zip lock bags. Or buy healthy meal replacement bars in bulk. Make sure they are high quality, real food bars. My favorites are Kind bars but there are many other bars that are healthy and delicious.
#6 Gift cards. When you ask students and residents which gift cards would be most appreciated it’s pretty consistently these three: Amazon, Trader’s Joes, Whole Foods or other grocery stores, and Starbucks.
#5 Digital upgrades. A high-quality phone is a critically important tool in the hospital. Everyone in medicine spends a good part of the day texting each other, looking up patients on Haiku (the Epic phone app), checking UpToDate for the latest treatments, finding other medical information in many other places and – of course – staying in touch with our teams, friends and families. Up to date computers, iPads, and AirPods (or equivalent) are also great gift options for any student or resident.
#4 A cleaner house. Pre pandemic, I recommended someone to help clean as the number one gift for medical folks. But, even with the limitations imposed by COVID, there are still gifts that can help! Number one on this list would be a Roomba so they don’t have to vacuum.
#3 Healthy meals at home that don’t take time. The Instant Pot has been my top recommendation as a gift for students, residents and busy healers for several years. Another wonderful gift I’ve recommended before is How to Cook Everything Fast: A Better Way to Cook Great Food by Mark Bittman. This year, I would add a certificate to meal delivery plans. The one I use is Clean Creations (because I like to have vegetarian options), but many of my friends swear by Freshly. Every city has companies that are similar, so do some homework and you’ll find several to compare. If you are a good cook, you might consider creating your own “meal deliveryservice” for your loved one, especially if you live in the same city.
#2 Caffeine. This comes in different forms for different people, but unless they avoid caffeine for religious reasons, almost every healer and healer in training I know has a go to form of caffeine they love. For most people, it’s coffee. The number one gift on the list (my opinion) for coffee lovers is a Nespresso machine (and some pods to go with it). You can also get them a metal “pod” for their own coffee rather than the Nespresso pods which will save some money. There are other options for pod coffee machines, so you might want to read about them all before deciding. Having tried coffee from a variety of machines, I personal think Nespresso makes the best cup of coffee, but I am partial to espresso. Another great gift option for serious coffee drinkers is programmable coffeemaker so their coffee is ready when they get up at “dark thirty” to get to work. For tea drinkers, there are many options for teas, brewing systems, and pots. For all healers, regardless whether they are coffee or tea drinkers, a gift at the top of the list would have to be a Yeti or Contigo tumbler. These tumblers keep coffee or tea hot for hours… so your drink is still there and still hot when you get pulled away from that first sip.
#1 Money. Students and residents, with rare exceptions, don’t have money for special things. Some don’t have enough money after rent and loans for things most of us would consider essentials. Giving money may seem a bit impersonal, but you can make it personal with a letter, a card, or creative packaging.
It’s almost impossible during times of stress to be motivated to do hard things. For all but the most hardcore exercisers, ice cream just seems more soothing than running when you are emotionally exhausted (Right?). I’m no different. But, as much as I would like to think “later” will be ok to regain what I have lost in these months of being more sedentary than usual, I have begun to realize that I needed to get moving again.
Enter Richard Rohr
I’ve been a fan of Richard Rohr for years. He’s a gifted writer with the laugh and smiling eyes of someone who has tapped into something I want to know more about. I subscribe to his weekly email, which this week introduced Jonathan Stall’s practice of moving “as a way to invite brave creativity.”
There is a lot to unpack in that idea.
What exactly would “brave creativity” look like? I’m not sure, but it sounded like something I, and I suspect all of us, need more of right now.
“We invite you, as able, to take some time this weekend to move mindfully through your local area.”
I set off on a different kind of walk.
I grabbed my mask and headed out for a walk in my neighborhood, trying to think about this not just as exercise, but as something more. I read Jonathan Stall’s advice again:
Bring something to jot ideas down while you are out, but more importantly, invite your “goals/pains/dreams” to join you on this walk.
Walk for at least 30-40 minutes
Wear a mask if you get within 6-10 feet of anyone (respect for your neighbor)
Start the walk with a sense of being open. “As you begin to move, seek the realms of wonder, of space, and of reaching high into what’s possible…”
Where did all these lawn chairs come from?
I’ve walked many times before in my neighborhood, and I’m an observant person. But today, as I walked, I began to notice all the chairs on people’s lawns and all the swings, and “tires” hanging from trees.
Were they always here and I didn’t notice them?
Are more people sitting outside now than before – even though it’s outrageously hot here in August?
Is this because of how much we all need (safe) connection to each other during the time of pandemic?
Are there actually more chairs, swings and tires because of how much we all need to hear birds, see trees and listen to the cicadas in the summer evening right now?
Yes, there will be next steps. This experiment led me to more questions than answers, but I had a real a sense of being taught, too.
If you are a healer (which I think is much better than ‘provider’,
right?) you are going to work afraid, and you come home afraid… which is completely
normal. Being brave doesn’t mean being fearless, it means doing what is needed despite
But in this fearful time and with the incredibly important work you are doing, it’s important that your home becomes a sanctuary, a safe place where you can let go of a little of the fear.
Let’s start with banishing #COVID19 from your home.
When you come home from work, the first thing you should see
is a sign on the door you enter. It should be a reminder that you are loved,
that you are appreciated for your bravery and your work … and that the first
thing you should do is wash your hands!
Take off your shoes
If you have on the shoes you wore in the hospital, take them
off in the garage before you go into the house. You may want to consider having
a pair of shoes you leave at the hospital, but what ever pair is on your feet
when you get home, leave them in the garage or at the door.
Like you, I’m surrounded and sometimes overwhelmed with the fears and anxieties of the COVID19 pandemic. The world seems so very fragile and vulnerable right now. This morning was tougher than usual for some reason. So…. I got out of my chair, put on my shoes and went for a walk trying to look, with eyes open, for things to sustain me, connect me and provide solace.
Here’s what I heard on my walk …
A virtuoso mockingbird singing to the world (and, I assume, a few cute nearby mockingbirds), six different languages from people walking near me (I love Houston!)… friendly “hellos” from almost everyone I passed (all more than 6 feet away)…
Here’s what I saw on my walk…
A magnificent tree that I had never really noticed before… a family rescuing a caterpillar from the street with a stick… small purple flowers in the grass… kids on bikes… a butterfly garden in a “pocket” prairie…
Here’s what I learned …
Fear is gone when gratitude is present. They can’t be present at the same time.
It’s therapeutic to spend a little time with your #EyesOpen, preferably outside.
If you are a healer, thank you for what you are doing and stay safe. I’ll hold you in the light.
Whenever I can, I go to our local farmers’ market on Saturday morning to buy food for the week. There is the obvious benefit that the food is organic, healthy and fresh, but there are some other benefits you might not have thought about. First, there is something special about eating with the seasons. Right now is peach season and they are amazing… but they will be gone in a few weeks, to be replaced in the fall and winter with citrus fruits. Secondly, you learn the names of the people who raise your food – and they will recognize you after a few weeks of shopping with them. The farmers’ market becomes a social connection, created through food, that Is sustaining in a different way. Finally, the experience of the market itself is so different from the stress of the work week – bright colors, happy people, music, food trucks, etc.
Now what exactly did I buy? When I get home, I put all of the food out on my kitchen counter and take a photo. The task of taking the photo is just fun for me (I love the colors and how beautiful it looks) but, to be honest, I started doing this so I could remember what I bought. So the next thing I do is make a list from the photo.
First one home starts cooking! I use a program called Paprika 3 to plan the week. It includes a browser to look for recipes, a weekly planner to list when I’m (tentatively) planning to cook each recipe, and a shopping list. Even better, the app is shared with my significant other so we both have all the info.
So, what are we cooking this week? After trying
different combos in the browser such as “okra and sweet peppers recipe” or “papalo
recipe”, here is what our menu looks like for this week. There is never a week
that we follow the menu exactly – and I think that’s really important. This is
the destination, but not the journey! We swap evenings, trade lunches for
dinners, whatever works for the week. Note also, that since we aren’t on call
this weekend, we are cooking a lot on Sunday to have leftovers during the week.
Need anything else? I make a separate shopping list
for the missing items in the recipes (if they aren’t in the pantry already) and
go to pick them up at a nearby grocery store.
If it’s going to be a busy week, we get ready. Most of cooking is the preparation, right? When you walk in the door exhausted at 7:30, it’s hard to have enough energy to cook. That magically changes if everything is already cut up and ready to throw in the bowl or pan. We’ll make stock from all the leftover vegetables peels and ends and spend some time cutting things up to have them ready.
I hope this helps! It’s true for anyone who is busy,
but medical students and residents have a particularly hard time finding the time
to eat well. Give this plan a try… it will not only give your body the kind of
food it craves (and needs)… you’ll be surprised at how it refuels you in other
Every year I try to post gift suggestions for the family and friends of people in medicine (and all other busy professions). Here are this year’s suggestions!
Listen. A great friend of mine told me once that human beings heal by telling stories. There are lots of stories in medicine that go untold, but I promise you there are stories. Listen mindfully, without judgment and without trying to “fix” anything. Start with “Tell me a story about something that amazed you”… and then take it from there.
Write a letter. Write a “letter of recommendation”. Yes, I’m serious! Not a letter to “get” or be elected to anything, but a letter that shows you know who they really are and how amazing it is that they have dedicated themselves to something so important. Make it a love letter, a letter of support, a letter with family history to encourage them… but a real letter. Write it on a computer and then print it, or use some beautiful stationary and a pen, but create a physical letter that will sit on their desk. Put the letter in a special box (something you might add to from time to time with other short letters?).
Instant Pot. There are kitchen conveniences, there are fads, and then there is the Instant Pot. This has taken on almost cult like status among users for a reason. It’s a 6 in one device (pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, saute, steamer and warmer) that makes it easy to cook healthy food. For students and residents, the 6 quart basic Instant Pot does everything you need it to do, but feel free to choose one with more bells and whistles if you want.
A cleaning service. No one likes to clean toilets. And, if you are working 80 hours a week, housework takes away precious personal time to socialize, exercise or restore your batteries in other ways. If you are in a position to do so, see if you can make this a win-win by working with a church, refugee placement group or another social justice group to find someone specific who really needs this kind of work. Whether it’s a one time “deep clean”, a monthly clean, or weekly cleaning and laundry, any help will be a deeply appreciated gift. Another approach is to do a little “sneaky” homework – your loved one may have a friend who has already found someone wonderful who might need more work.
The Gift of Organization. I have become a huge fan of the Bullet Journal. It is incredibly easy, very versatile and, I believe, a perfect system for medical students, residents and docs. (especially when paired with a list on your smart phone when you are separate from your Bullet Journal). Choose a good Moleskin journal and the new book by Ryder Carroll, who developed this technique, and wrap them together as a perfect gift. If you want to really make their day, include a package of good (but not too expensive) pens.
A gym membership (and other related gifts). It’s really hard to find time to exercise if you are busy, but it’s critical for mental and physical health. There are a lot of options here, but they need to be specific to the likes and dislikes of your loved one. If they are a runner, maybe a gift certificate for new shoes? Do they like spin classes? If so, check out where the good classes are near them. Same for yoga, dance, ice skating, tennis, swimming, etc. A membership at a YMCA ( if there is one near them) will give them access to weights, classes and often a pool. Would they commute to school/work if they had a good bicycle? Can you get them a new watch or fitness monitor that will help count steps and flights of stairs? Would an “on the go” exercise kithelp them?
A Meditation App. I tell my students that if they can only pick one thing on the self-care list to choose, that this would be it. There are plenty of data that show the stress-reducing benefits of meditation. What is amazing is that if you have a meditation practice the other self-care is easier, too. This is a great tool to help meet the goal to be better and happier physicians.
Your time.Can you cook some meals once a month and put them in their freezer? Do laundry? Bake cookies and mail them? Get their car washed every once in a while? Make an elaborate certificate with something you could do for them and wrap it as a present?
Need other ideas? Here are links to some previous lists: 2017, 2016, 2014,