In your words

My victory over burnout: How leading a sustainable life changed everything for me

Owning my autonomy at work helped me give up several unhealthy coping mechanisms I was employing to deal with overwork and exhaustion.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on KevinMD and is republished here with permission. It has been edited for The DO. This is an opinion piece; the views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Eighteen months out of residency and into outpatient psychiatry private practice, for the first time since before medical school, I’m coming home actually feeling a surplus of energy to put into my life outside of clinical practice. Sure, I did my best to maintain my interests and relationships during my training, but doing so felt like trying to wring blood from a stone.

A slight sense of boredom in the evening, oddly enough, is a victory now. I mean this in the sense of enjoying the all-but-forgotten sensation of wanting for more to do vs. feeling too emotionally exhausted for anything but slumping into the couch with a glass of wine, engrossed in “peak TV.”

Life after burnout

It dawned on me: I think this is what not feeling burned out feels like!

The following are indicators of the changes I’ve made as I’ve transitioned to a sustainable life. They are outcomes, not catalysts, as we would often have people believe when we counsel them on “healthy lifestyle choices.”

In the past year, I no longer depend on caffeine in the morning to compensate for poor sleep habits, that glass of wine after work to unwind, and online shopping for mental relief. OK, I didn’t give up “peak TV” even though Game of Thrones is over, but I make mindful choices about when and how I enjoy it.

Sleep hygiene

I’ve achieved the most consistent and effective sleep hygiene of my life and feel fully rested on 6.5 hours of sleep. I used to need nine to feel OK. I wake up refreshed with an extra hour every weekday morning to work on passion projects like writing and building my nonmedical business. I walk two miles outdoors most days.

I no longer leave a signature trail of Diet Cherry Coke cans in my wake wherever I go and instead drink a lot more water. I eat my fruits and veggies and don’t consistently binge processed food in the evenings, as I have done for most of the past decade.

I’m still working on a healthier relationship with food, but I generally don’t use it as a substance of abuse anymore.

Caffeine dependence, using alcohol to feel differently (even if used in moderation), compulsive online shopping, sleep deprivation alternating with oversleeping, consuming pseudo-foods in extreme quantity, passively flooding the senses with the experiential-equivalent of empty calories in the form of streaming video and social media—these are all maladaptive coping habits and ways we self-medicate.

While I found myself committing to working hard to change these habits throughout the year, I know I wouldn’t have succeeded or, frankly, even been sincerely motivated, if I hadn’t made other changes necessary for the sustainability of my emotional energy.

What in your life isn’t sustainable?

I’ve realized a lot of the advice we give in psychiatry, and other branches of medicine about giving up our vices, getting more active, improving our sleep, and eating healthier in order to feel better is actually backward. What has to happen first is identifying what in our lives isn’t sustainable.

The behaviors are the best way our psyches know to cope with life circumstances or mental frameworks that we couldn’t bear if we were to experience them without numbing ourselves. We, and our patients, have to identify what our self-medication is protecting us from and find new solutions despite the unconscious terror that such a cure is worse than the disease.

Only then can we turn away from self-medicating our anxiety, disillusionment, and emotional exhaustion, let alone trauma, with maladaptive behaviors.

Owning my autonomy to cultivate my patient population and limit my work hours is what lead to my life improving in the last year. Despite being fortunate enough to be employed in a very flexible organization, I spent six months not exercising this freedom before I realized I was playing out moralized narratives of indentured servitude cultivated in residency and being complicit in perpetuating my own burnout.

At that point, I wrapped my head around what my future would look like if I went on taking every case that taxed my emotional reserves to the extreme and threw hand grenades into my clinic workflow on a daily basis, getting in the way of my capacity to help even the most straight-forward cases which could benefit tremendously from first-line interventions and a modicum of empathy.

Investing in myself

I accepted that I don’t have a moral imperative not to turn anyone away, that it is OK to make choices that let my practice be what I want it to be, whatever that looks like. That embracing psychiatry as a “lifestyle specialty” is not selling out, it is investing in myself, as well as allowing me to help more people in a more compassionate way in the long run.

So, a year ago, I discharged about a dozen patients that had been contributing most to my burnout. I’ve been implementing more screening methods and have been more selective since then about who I’m willing to see for follow-up after an initial assessment.

I set boundaries with patients in a way that makes my practice sustainable for me and accepted that it’s OK if my priorities don’t look the same as my colleagues’ and mentors’. We all had quirky attendings when we were in training. Now, I am letting myself have my quirks.

Exercise your autonomy

I now block out 90 minutes at midday for admin time and at least 30 minutes away from my desk. Friday afternoons, I’m out of the office to work on things that make me feel whole.

I realize I’m fortunate to be able to make these changes within my current employment structure—I know not everyone can. Whatever autonomy you have, and it is likely that you have more than you let yourself believe, exercise it. If needed, accept that you’ll have to change your circumstances once you’ve changed your mindset. It is the path to truly enjoying your work and living life in a sustainable way.

Related reading:

5 facets of physician burnout

6 ways to reduce doctor burnout at the systemic level

2 comments

  1. Finding Joy and Meaning in Medicine is the key to Wellness! We all have healthy activities that we enjoy, and for us it was basketball at Kaiser Permanente North Valley/Northern California. Thank you for the article, appreciate the high impact advice! Wishing everyone the best!

    TPMG Basketball Club founder Dr. Tae Jung

  2. I can’t say strongly enough – right on! Work will eat us alive, misshapen us unless we get stronger. And how we do that is self-sustaining practices. Eat well, exercise, doses of supportive people and fun. Sit down and schedule stuff in that you need, even if you have to set a timer.

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