Fatigued doctors and nursing dealing with the stresses of the pandemic could find mental relief in a secret described by UF medical professionals.
How can frontline physicians and nurses maintain their mental resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic? Are there secrets to staying emotionally strong in a medical crisis that can benefit health care workers and the rest of us? Is it possible to emerge even stronger from such a grueling experience?
Yes, yes, and yes! say surgeons from the UF College of Medicine. The secret is to deliberately cultivate optimism and grit – which can be summed up as Growth, Resilience, Intensity and Tenacity.
In a recent paper for the American Journal of Surgery, former UF resident and soon-to-be UF faculty member Dr. Tyler Loftus and a team of investigators outline practical ways to prevent burnout and improve performance among surgeons in times of adversity. His coauthors include Dr. Gilbert Upchurch, chair of UF’s Department of Surgery, who immediately recognized that these insights could aid his colleagues weathering the challenges of COVID-19.
Writing for fellow surgeons on the American College of Surgeons website, Upchurch summarizes five tips for cultivating grit and optimism in this pandemic. “While the emotional and fiscal toll will be significant,” he writes, “based on all I know about human resolve, we will show ’grit,’ as we always do.”
Upchurch’s fortifying advice, below, can inspire the rest of us as well.
- Maintain increased levels of positivity. As humans, we try to avoid the negative more than we try to attain the positive. The literature suggests that one needs to be three to six times more positive than negative. To increase your ratio, find the positive in negative events, seeing them as opportunities for reflection and improvement. Take a few minutes each day to recall things that have gone well; this increases your happiness with lasting benefits, a phenomenon known as the “Tetris effect.”
- Pursue major challenges that match personal skills. The best way to help in the battle against this disease is to spend time focused on helping others who may have it or are at high risk for it. Volunteer to make masks. Go serve as a scribe. No job is too small when you are helping. My dad volunteers at a place where they hand out food every week to 120 needy families in a small town in North Carolina. He can barely stand or walk and now says he is “in charge of hugs.” While I don’t suggest you hand out hugs, I do suggest that, like my dad, you help as best you can.
- Engage in deliberate practice to improve personal skills. Most great athletes envision making the shot before it goes through the goal or hoop. Envision yourself helping others, and then go out and do it. I keep seeing myself in the trauma/acute care surgery clinic and caring for patients in the operating rooms and intensive care units.
- Persist in working hard for extended periods of time, recognizing that effort can often count for more than talent. There is a lot of data suggesting that mental toughness, or grit, is important in achievement. In a group of Ivy League undergraduate students, having grit correlated with higher grade point averages, ironically even among those with lower SAT scores. Sustain your effort until you complete a task or reach a natural stopping point. Studies show that deliberate practice like this increases performance over time.
- Pursue a higher meaning and purpose in your work and life. As clichéd as it might sound, we all started down this path of becoming health care workers with the same goals: to rid the world of pain and suffering and to help others. Reflect on why you became a health care worker during this time of assault, as well as in the time following when we will be returning to normal. Use this “new normal” to reprioritize the things that are important to you and become a better you.
Upchurch ends his short article with this thought for his fellow clinicians:
“I want us all to be better on the other side of this pandemic. In fact, I know we will be better, because we all have a little ‘Rooster J. Cogburn’ in us – that is, ‘True Grit.’ Namely, we are all willing to do what others won’t: Put ourselves in harm’s way in order to help.”
“Performance advantages for grit and optimism.” Tyler Loftus, Amanda Filiberto, Martin Rosenthal, George Arnaoutakis, George Sarosi, Justin Dimick, Gilbert Upchurch. American Journal of Surgery, 2020. https://www.americanjournalofsurgery.com/article/S0002-9610(20)30085-4/fulltext
“Insights from a Surgeon from the University of Florida College of Medicine.” Gilbert Upchurch. “A Surgeon’s Voice” series. American College of Surgeons website. Apr. 7, 2020. https://www.facs.org/covid-19/surgeons-voice/uflorida