6 Ways Doctors Practice Self-Care: From Pizza to Volunteerism

Marie DeFreitas

January 28, 2022

It's no secret that physicians are struggling to find ways to cope as the pandemic wears on. While there's no antidote to these familiar feelings of fatigue, many physicians are tending to their well-being by making a point of doing what makes them happy. According to the 2022 Medscape Lifestyle & Happiness Report, physicians are adopting a multitude of ways of doing so.

It can be hard to take time for yourself or to even recognize that you're in need of a break. Here, six physicians share the little things that spark joy, invite relaxation, and serve as a reminder that it's okay to put yourself first.

Artisan Pizza Making

Rachel Marcus, MD, a cardiologist, and Chagas disease expert and founder of the Latin American Society of Chagas in Baltimore, turns to the art of pizza making to help maintain her mental well-being. Marcus' obsession with homemade pizza began a few years ago. Once, she even challenged herself to make a different kind of pizza every week for a year.

"I had been making wild yeast sourdough for several years prior to that, and it seemed like a natural extension of that baking. I built up a core foundation of skills during that time and started paying more attention to the stars of the artisan pizza scene.

"There's so much to learn, and it's a good distraction from the days' news, COVID or otherwise. And then there's the inexplicable joy that I get from putting my hands into well-made dough."

Getting Moving at the Gym

Evgeniia Uglova, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Helsinki in Finland, likes to hit the gym.

"My favorite thing to promote self-care is exercise. I visit the gym twice a week. Sometimes I book time with a personal trainer ― it helps me to keep my motivation. I also enjoy swimming laps in the pool followed by some time in the sauna. It helps me to relax, and it's a kind of mindfulness for me. It helps me sleep better, relieves tension in my body, and reduces stress. I spend 8 to 10 hours sitting down at work every day, so it feels good to do some exercises and I feel fresh after working out."

Going Back to Your Roots by Volunteering

Justin Fiala, MD, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, leans into his work even more.

"It sounds counterintuitive, but I volunteer at a free clinic to reinvigorate myself.

"The impetus for starting to volunteer actually began during the very first surge of the pandemic when people of color were disproportionately dying of COVID. The frustration and despair I felt at having to bear witness to the continuous suffering and injustice initially left me dismayed and deflated. But a question posed by my husband one night when I was lamenting about the sad state of things spurred me to change course: 'What are you doing about it?'

"And so, two Saturdays per month I hold free sleep clinics where I see patients for issues related primarily to insomnia and sleep-disordered breathing. Showing up to the clinic never feels like a chore. I get to focus solely on treating patients and get to ignore the red tape associated with billing and insurance company/durable medical equipment reimbursement. I find myself recharged. In essence, the free clinic has shown me that it's not medicine that has led to my exhaustion, it's the healthcare system. Having that realization to fall back on has been incredibly healing and particularly effective when I find myself faced with thoughts of burnout."

Routine Meditation and Workouts

Vikranth Kancharla, MD, a primary care physician and medical officer in the Defense Research and Development Organization of India, likes to mix in meditation and a daily workout to help relieve stress.

"As a young doctor, my daily life isn't as easy as I thought it would be before med school. I'm stressed on a daily basis about my career, work, patients, and family. It has not been an easy road for me to get where I am, so I've started practicing meditation and incorporating daily workouts. It's had a great effect on my mind and my performance, and I always try my best to be happy, regardless of the stress of reality."

Tending to the People You Love

Lakshman Swamy, MD, a pulmonary and critical care physician and instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, addresses each part of his burnout specifically.

"Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, a sense of a lack of personal accomplishment, and depersonalization. In my own life, I try to address each of these elements to combat burnout.

"I combat emotional exhaustion by finding ways to fill the tank entirely outside of work. That means taking the extra step to check in with friends, family, spending more time with my children, and focusing entirely on them and their world. There are a lot of people that care about you. Put the white coat away and find ways to spend time with them as a person.

"I combat a sense of lack of personal accomplishment by doing things outside of work that give me an instant sense of accomplishment. Every day I [go for a] run is a day I've won, even if everything else was lost. Baking a loaf of fresh bread or doing any kind of physical creation gives me a similar feeling and reminds me that there is more to me than who I am at work.

"For depersonalization, I like to intentionally reflect on the work and my experience with it.

"Investing in your own well-being isn't accepting the toxic world you're forced to live and practice in, but it can help you tolerate it better. Try connecting with a therapist and please, please seek help if you're having more serious thoughts of self-harm. More than ever, we need to look out for each other ― it often feels like no one else is."

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