Stop Physician Burnout: Dealing Effectively with Negative Emotions

Posted by Dike Drummond MD

stop-physician-burnout-dealing-with-negative-emotions.jpgLike the layers of an onion, physician burnout is often wrapped in layers of negative emotions. In this post, let me show you a simple technique - it only takes 15 seconds - to release negative emotions as they arise and become the authentic eye of the storm in your practice day.

Peeling back the layers of the onion of bad feelings

If you find yourself overwhelmed, exhausted and out of balance with your practice -- after all your years of training and hard work, and this isn't anything like what you dreamed of back in the day ... well that recognition just feels bad.

And then you notice that the fact you feel bad about your career - well that feels bad too.

[Related: Become the Eye of the Storm in your Practice Day]

Many physicians then begin to wonder about the source of this distressing situation. The little voice in your head might kick in by whispering:

What's wrong with you? You are a successful doctor. You have nothing to complain about. You can take this. Quit whining and get back to work. Your patients come first, dang it.

And if you do begin to take better care of yourself -- start creating a little bit of life balance and building some recharge activities into your week -- a different negative emotion often comes knocking at the door of your awareness ... GUILT.

For many physicians, taking on simple self-care habits can trigger feelings of guilt. The little voice conversations are very similar to the ones above.

What makes you think you are so special? You're the doctor, the patients come first, there is no time for you to take a nap or a walk or a day off.  What is wrong with you? Can't you take it?

Then you notice that feeling bad about the simple act of taking better care of yourself - well that feels bad too.

New research is showing that this habit of feeling bad about feeling bad - well it makes you feel even worse. When you are in the downward spiral of burnout, these layers of negative emotions can really add up.

It does not have to be this way.

You can't simply ban negative emotional states from your consciousness, however, you can learn different ways to respond to sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety ... when you notice them.

How you respond to negative emotions will go a long way to determining your quality of life.

Which brings up an obvious question ...

What are you supposed to do with these bad feelings? What is a healthy alternative?

Everyone experiences negative emotions. What you do with them once you notice you have been hi-jacked is the key.

You will see individual people fall into two basic patterns based on their level of mindfulness:

  1. Become your emotional state
  2. Release negative emotions as you notice them

body scan guided imagery audio

1) Becoming your emotions

The most obvious example of allowing your emotions to take charge is the classic screaming tantrum of the toddler in the airport or grocery store.

You can tell the difference in the quality of their crying right away. That kid isn't hurt ... they are pissed off. They feel anger and they become sad. You watch the parent pick them up and attempt to console them. More often than not, this makes things worse. Many times the child then vents their anger on the parent. Things only calm down when they are exhausted and can't maintain the intensity.

As adults we can sometimes continue that pattern and actually become our feelings - especially when our feelings involve negative emotions.

Notice this common language and sentence structure when talking about emotions.

I am sad. I am frustrated. I am angry. I am anxious.

If this is what you are thinking, your body will respond. Thoughts of "I am sad" will trigger the physiologic, hormonal and neurotransmitter cascade of sadness. It is off to the races for your mind and body as you become that emotion. This emotional hi-jack is a feedback loop that will effect your thoughts and awareness until it exhausts itself. 

It can even form layers as you play out the scenario above - noticing that you are feeling bad, you begin to feel bad about feeling bad. YIKES.

2) Releasing your emotions

Note that you are not your emotions.

Emotions are the physical feelings triggered by specific thought patterns. They are your body's response to thought patterns. They are fluid, dynamic and temporary if you don't hold on to them.

When you are noticing your emotions rather than becoming them ... your language will change.

I am having sad feelings. I notice a lot of anxiety today. That sure is frustrating. 

When you notice feelings rather than become them - you are also capable of releasing them. The experience of releasing negative emotions can be very simple and powerful in a way that is truly life changing. It could go like this:

  • I notice I am feeling anxious
  • I don't like that very much and it isn't serving any purpose right now
  • I am going to take a big breath and release that anxiety as I exhale
  • And get back to what I was doing

Notice - Release - Return

  • NOTICE negative emotions as they arise - rather than becoming them
  • RELEASE the emotion with a deep cleansing breath
  • RETURN to the present and the task or person right in front of you

These are skills you can learn, practice, hone and perfect even if you have never heard of this whole topic before. Mastery of this triad can revolutionize your experience of being a doctor.

And this three step process is a core feature of any practice of Mindfulness. This ability to release negative emotions as they arise is key to becoming the eye of the storm in your life - at work and at home.

It is also the basis of our One Minute Mindfulness Online Training Program. This single-breath mindfulness technique is research proven to be effective in lowering stress in practicing physicians. Learn more about the program at the link above.

And try the Notice - Release - Return sequence - using your breath - on your next work day. 

The more you practice Notice - Release - Return with any negative emotion, the better you will get at letting go. You will be able to stay calm, centered and focused - no matter what is going on around you - and the sense of being hi-jacked will lift.



What technique do you use to release negative emotions? 
How is that working for you?


Tags: Physician Burnout, Mindfulness