I’ve had a lot of ups and downs throughout my schooling and career — not just related to my profession but personally, as well. In the past, it has crossed my mind that I should probably seek professional help, but then, one way or another, I would move past my issues, and life would normalize. I would move on and forget about it.
A few years ago, things were different. My mom fell sick and while she was receiving treatment, the situation at my job started getting complicated, my group of friends felt like they were drifting away from me, and my relationship status went from bad to worse.
In the past, when one area of my life needed help, I could generally rely on the other areas to take care of themselves while I fixed things in the part that was struggling. This time, however, everything felt like it was falling apart — family, work, my personal life, etc. Every time I turned around, something was going wrong.
Because everything seemed to be failing, and I could feel myself slowly going crazy, I decided to reach out and ask for help.
Knowing who to ask can be difficult. There’s a stigma in medicine about asking for help; people are afraid to talk about their issues, or bury them for fear that they will be seen as weak or incapable. However, there are people in medicine who recognize the importance of self-care and mental health. They do exist; you just have to look for them. The person you turn to doesn’t need to be high up on the food chain; they just need to be someone you can trust and confide in.
For me, I contacted someone peripherally associated with our department who I knew could keep a secret and wouldn’t judge me. From there, I was referred to another colleague who pointed me toward the various resources that our institution had to offer. In addition, I was given the names of and recommendations for therapists known to be reputable and trustworthy. I used that list and made the first available appointment with a therapist near my home.
For anyone thinking, “I can just talk to my friends or family, I don’t need a therapist” trust me, it’s not the same. It’s not just about venting and sharing your thoughts/feelings; it’s also about the feedback and questions that make you think about WHY you’re reacting and feeling the way you are. It’s about digging down and figuring out where you’re coming from and how to handle it — how to take a step back and see a situation differently; how to separate your insecurities from who you really are; yow to work on yourself so that you can move past your issues, deal with them effectively, and regain your balance.
How much of that sounds like what every clinician needs? Every resident? Every student? In each of my sessions, I was able to unload my thoughts, feelings, doubts, and fears, and I was given mental tools to help me cope with my issues.
From the beginning, we are thrown into this mess that is medicine and expected to just handle it. But we are not robots. We cannot be programmed to just “deal” with our situations. We are emotional beings. Our experiences affect each of us differently, and sometimes, we need assistance in figuring those emotions out. Moreover, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Think about it another way: How can we ever hope to reach our patients if we are not allowed to reach down and know ourselves? How can we empathize when we are struggling to handle our own emotions and stressors?
If any of this rings a bell, or makes you think of someone else, then I encourage you to reach out, find someone. Don’t wait. There’s no right time to do it — there is no preparation or mindset to put yourself in before you do. There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. The last thing you want is for the mental stress you are experiencing to start affecting you physically and, ultimately, not only make you feel burned out at work but also get in your way of being present and living life as you should.
I sometimes wish I had talked to someone back in medical school. I could have learned coping mechanisms back then, and maybe have changed the way I’ve dealt with things over these past few years. But if therapy is not something you think you can do right now, then in the meantime, at least try to take steps toward self-care. Take a vacation. Use a day off to do something other than complete chores and responsibilities — whatever you can/need to do to make yourself a priority and regain your balance.
Be strong. In fact, you already are. So let’s keep it that way.
Be your own priority. Self-care and then care for others.
Be balanced. Even if it means asking for a little help to get there.
Dr. Vig is a practicing physician in southern California and a blogger. She publishes content about female empowerment, work-life balance, and encouraging others to be themselves.