Before you start a flight, you have to go through the safety instructions on how to be prepared for the event of an emergency, and one thing is always consistent in their instructions no matter what airline you fly: before you help another person with their air mask, put your air mask on first.
As I became more aware of the idea of self-care, I found this analogy helpful as a reminder to take care of myself before I take care of others.
Of course, when you are in serving profession, your immediate instinct is to help others before yourself. You pull long hours at the hospital or at your practice, time for yourself becomes secondary to the needs of your patients, and sleep becomes something of your youth and something you can look forward to after retirement. While your profession is demanding, and these are often realities of the life you have chosen for yourself, it does not mean that self-care should fall by the wayside.
If you’re on a flight and the air pressure suddenly drops in your cabin, and the air masks pop out, what would happen if you went to help those who needed the air mask before you put yours on? Naturally, you would lose consciousness, leaving those who need your help putting on their air mask lose consciousness too, and you’re all suddenly worse off than you should be in this air emergency. We’ll move away from this analogy now, with the hope that everything turns out okay on your flight, the cabin regains its pressure and your air emergency gets resolved and you all land safely, consciousness intact.
Self-care as a medical professional is absolutely imperative to your effectiveness in caring for patients. Without taking the time to care for yourself, your physical and emotional needs and especially your own health, you decrease your ability to provide the attentiveness and focus to your patients that they deserve.
You don’t have to feel guilty about taking time for your self-care, nor do you need to make your own self-care a low priority; in fact, you should place self-care very high on your priority list and take the time you need for self-care without guilt, recognizing that it is a critical piece of maintaining your quality of care as a medical professional.
What does self-care look like?
Self-care does not have to be able taking long periods of time away from the job. It does not require you to step away from your responsibilities completely, nor does it warrant you to completely change the patterns in your life so that self-care becomes something that disrupts your regular daily routine. Self-care is something that you can take into your life as more of a habit rather than a burden on your schedule or something you need to get to once everything else has been completed.
Once self-care becomes a habit of mind, you’ll find that you naturally feel more effective, and you’ll see that manifest in your relationships with your patients. When you are well-rested, your own spirit is fulfilled, and you have a general sense of internal well-being, you approach your interactions in a different kind of way than if you weren’t taking care of your own needs.
Who wants to visit a medical professional who appears tired, rushed, disheveled, or generally not taken care of? Who would take advice about self-care by a medical professional who doesn’t appear to do this for themselves?
Here are a just a few ways that you can work to integrate practices of self-care into your daily life, to improve the way you care for your patients through the way you care for yourself:
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Practice What You Preach
You got into health care because you wanted to help people maximize their health and well-being, so do you always practice what you preach? When you met patients, you are always giving them tips on how to care for themselves, whether it be through an illness or injury or for daily life.
You include the importance of good diet, and sufficient exercise and sleep in your instructions to them, and in follow ups, you are sure to ask how they have been doing to keep up these good habits, taking time to remind them of the importance of these things when it appears they have let them slip.
Can you be neglecting to follow your own advice? Take time to listen to what you are saying to your patients, and turn those questions back on yourself. You have ample opportunity for this each day! If you find you are coming up short in your own answers when you compare what you’d like to hear from your patients, you may be onto a need to step up your self-care game.
While the medical profession can often be demanding on our bodies, it can also be very demanding mentally and emotionally. Sometimes you have bad outcomes that you have to deliver to patients. Sometimes a particular case just sticks with you and nags at you at the back of your mind as you move forward. Taking time to use a reflective journal will help you make sense of things that happen to you as a medical professional. What happened? Why is it significant? How will this impact the way you do things moving forward?
Nutrition is key to maintaining the energy and internal well-being that you require to be effective in your job. When you work long hours, and shift work, it’s very easy to neglect your own nutrition and ensure you are getting the right amount of intake of vitamins and nutrients.
Be sure to be mindful about what you eat, how you eat, and when you eat. The right (or wrong) food can make all the difference in promoting the internal health you need to be your most effective self.
In later blog posts, I’ll share more tips on self-care and ensuring that you can be the most effective medical professional you can be. For now, take the time to consider how you place your own self care in your life.
Self-care before patient-care is the key to carrying out your vocation of helping others that drove you to the medical profession in the first place.
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