We medical professionals have normalized fear in our everyday professional life. From the first time we saw a trauma patient to our first procedure with a live patient, fear has been sitting right next to us. It is common for us to handle fear in the manner that has come the easiest. For some, this means pretending it doesn’t exist. For others it is rationalizing why fear does not matter. Yet, for others, fear drives more studying and learning to prevent one from ever putting themselves in a situation where fear is possible.
The ballgame has changed. We are facing a new enemy that takes that form of multiple figures. From the number of lives lost to the number of expected ventilators and medical personal, speculation and modeling provides estimates of the damage and duration without providing any certainty.
With each stage of our training, there was a defined end point. Graduation from medical school, completion of a rotation in residency, and the fulfillment of fellowship training all marked the end to a prolonged period of exhaustion, overwhelm and sacrifice. For any physician now in practice, the truth of these end dates seems like a child-like dream as the burdens of clinical practice still exist. Yet, during those long months, the end date provided comfort and a finish line to aim to cross. This enemy does not come with a completion date and the vast expanse of time that awaits is the only thing our mind can fixate on feeding the cycle of panic and exhaustion.
The fear that reverberates in our bodies feels relentless. The fear we now face is real. It is primal. This is the true tiger chasing us. We have gone from being able to pretend fear doesn’t exist to it haunting us with every breath we take. Chest tightness, pounding in our head, spinning thoughts, rapid breathing signals the fight or flight response we have spent years keeping at bay. Next, the self judgement and ruthless desire to make it all go away feeds the sympathetic nervous system. Paralyzed in thought and inaction is the final act of this production that now plays on repeat in our heads.
The strategies we have relied on no longer calm our racing mind. This time, it feels much more real. The facts are true. We are in the midst of a pandemic. Hospital systems are hitting maximum capacity. The emotional toll of heightened awareness is setting in and the exhaustion has only just begun. Yet, even in the midst of the swarm of panic, we have power. We can start to tread water and take a deep breath.
Here are some strategies that have proven to be helpful for myself and my clients. First, acknowledging that you are breathing, although simple on the surface, is grounding in the time of panic. If you are not in full PPE and in a safe setting, placing your hand on your chest and simply telling yourself, “I am going to be alright” starts to slow the sympathetic response. Closing your eyes for a few seconds and imagining a ray of light coming from the sky into your head and through your body can relax tense muscles and calm the nervous system.
Once we are able to acknowledge our primal fear and allow it to sit next to us, we can allow our body to calm and our mind to stop racing. Suddenly, the fear becomes our greatest source of knowledge. Our brains have been Divinely engineered for this very moment in time. This primal fear is a gift to keep us safe. It is our ally not our enemy. This fear is here to guide you and protect you.
We can ask questions such as, “Fear, what are you trying to tell me? Or “What do I need to do right now?” We can thank our Divine fear and use our fear to help us advocate for ourselves and our patients. It is amazing how what started as a paralyzing agent, now becomes our greatest resource.
The heightened sense of panic we felt in our bodies was a result of not honoring the fear and resisting it. The cascade of hormones and neurochemicals started the fight or flight response that shut off all of our ingenuity. When we can become friends with the fear, we can stay out of panic. It is miraculous to watch what a physician who is functioning one level above panic can accomplish. With one choice, the choice to thrive, fear becomes the comrade who stands with ruthless love never abandoning a fellow solider on the battlefield.
This will be a time in which our capacity of emotion and power is expanded as humans but more importantly as medical teams. Never doubt that ingenuity that arises in the uncomfortable feelings of fear. We have already seen so many shifts in patient care in such a short time. There is so much power we all have in this very moment. We have been trained, we have been called to heal and we have been given the gift of Divine ingenuity. It is our time to rise.
I have been where you are - I had always chosen stay on the same safe path. Then, one day, I believed in myself enough and that I was worth it enough to finally start listening to the inner voice that had been calling to me to take a huge leap into the unknown, to bet on myself with so much might - that I could be my most important patient and make any dream a reality. It is amazing to follow your inner voice and dream big.