4 Ways Doctors Showed Mental Strength This Year Amid Burnout

Healing tips for physicians, front-line workers, and the rest of us

ER doctor facing mental health challenges amid pandemic burnout

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Since 1933, March 30 has been recognized as National Doctors’ Day, a day to honor the incredible work of physicians and the contributions they make to their communities. This year the Verywell Mind team celebrates the commitment and endurance of these medical professionals at a time of unprecedented demands and mental health challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a bevy of emotional, physical, and mental health issues for all of us. For physicians, therapists, and other frontline workers, their journeys have included turmoil, death, stress, and the expectation that they can deal with these traumas without being impacted on a personal level.

We talked to five of the physicians and therapists from our Verywell Mind Review Board to hear the challenges and triumphs of their year, and we share the mental health and wellness tips they use to persevere and heal from a year of burnout.

Doctors Faced Unprecedented Times

While we all experienced uncertainty and major changes during the year, physicians faced a lot of tough challenges—and usually without any clear roadmap about how to handle a global pandemic.

Armeen Poor, MD, who jokes that he picked the wrong year to be a first-year pulmonary and critical care physician in New York City, says there was just so much unknown in the beginning of the pandemic, and physicians were constantly having to adapt to new treatments and recommendations.

“I had never experienced something like this before,” he says. “In medicine, we are often supported by randomized trials and the experience of others. But COVID forced us to learn on the fly as we synthesized in real time what was happening around the world...to find whatever we could in the literature to help our patients.”

This shift didn’t happen gradually, so nearly every element of care shifted immediately.

“Seemingly overnight, the way I took care of and interacted with all my patients changed,” says Massachusetts-based psychiatrist Steven Gans, MD. “There were masks, PPE, frequent testing, disinfecting, distancing, quarantining, and ever-present uncertainty and worry for patients, staff, and myself.”

Like Gans and other doctors providing mental health care to patients, Daniel Block, MD, a psychiatrist based in Pennsylvania, says his biggest challenge was switching to online therapy appointments, rather than in person ones, and staying focused all day in front of a screen.

Daniel Block, MD

I had to begin dealing with the use of telehealth, which to me seemed counterintuitive in addressing intimate and deeply personal issues with my therapy patients.

— Daniel Block, MD

Not only that, says Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, PsyD, ABPP, but the role she was used to as a Texas-based pediatric psychologist wasn't the only hat she was wearing on a daily basis.

“I [was] seeing six clients per day,” she says. “During my lunch breaks, I focused on teaching my kids material I have never had to teach before. It was exhausting.”

They Balanced Self-Care With Caring for Others

Physicians had to figure out how to take care of themselves so they could still provide their patients with the best care possible.

“Honestly, it’s the tools that I provide my clients that help me on a daily basis,” says Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS, a psychologist practicing in New York.

Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS

I often pause to remind myself to focus on what is in my control. I also know that if I don’t take time for me and my mental wellness, that I will not be available for my patients, family, or anyone else.

— Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS

Goldman and Poor agree that getting outside, exercising, and connecting with loved ones were crucial components of their toolkits.

For Block and Gans, their self-care involved keeping their family bonds as strong as possible. For Block, that meant he stayed accessible to his patients but stopped working on Fridays to make sure he still had time at home.

Gans says he became a multitasking expert—navigating intense work demands but always supporting his teenage kids and helping them deal with the pandemic's impact on their school and social lives.

“I’m often asked if being a psychiatrist makes me a better parent,” says Gans. “I’m not so sure about that, but dealing with all that I can't control in my kid's lives, particularly during the last year, has probably made me a more empathic and better psychiatrist. In my better moments, this year has allowed a focus on gratitude, shared communal experiences, and small moments of purpose.”

They Addressed Their Psychological Well-Being

Physicians and therapists worked long hours throughout the pandemic and witnessed a lot of sickness and sadness. Clearly, the strain they felt had an impact on their mental health, so they had to work on addressing their psychological needs throughout the year.

Poor says he experienced a number of unexpected psychological challenges, relying on close family and friends as well as mental health professionals to help him “navigate the tsunami of emotions.”

Armeen Poor, MD

I think it’s important for physicians to realize that it’s normal not to have the answers, and that it’s normal not to feel so good sometimes.

— Armeen Poor, MD

Lockhart, like so many of us, says she felt overwhelmed, so she started to just take each day, one at a time.

“There were times when I felt detached from others due to the significant shift and physical distancing, and it felt lonely,” she says. “I dealt with this by making the decision to change up my work environment and my schedule. This small change made all the difference for me.”

They Celebrated Their Triumphs, Both Big and Small

While this year was tough in so many ways, many physicians found comfort in acknowledging the positive things they experienced—like successfully adapting to change or celebrating the lives they saved.

“We have been able to help more individuals since distance, transportation, and access have been eliminated,” says Lockhart. “We have been able to see parents and adult clients during their lunch break. We have been able to see children and teenagers who are already at home virtual learning without the worry of adding time to their day to get to a physical appointment.” 

Gans agrees it's all of the little moments and day-to-day interactions that remind him that helping others care for their mental health could continue in surprisingly familiar ways.

Steven Gans, MD

I guess the ‘triumph’ was seeing the ways in which everyone adapted to this new normal, and we could continue in our efforts of healing and growth.

— Steven Gans, MD

Poor shares a touching story of caring for an unidentified, critically ill patient, who despite many complications was eventually taken off the ventilator.

“When he opened his eyes for the first time, able to breathe on his own, and saw us, tears started to stream down his face, so naturally I also started crying,” he says. “Before I knew it the whole team was crying. It was a pretty powerful experience because we had been getting inundated with so much, and had lost so many patients. To have this triumph was really special for all of us.” 

How to Deal With Burnout

Physicians and frontline workers are still dealing with grief, trauma, and PTSD, but they often aren’t given the tools to heal or acknowledge that they’re struggling. We also spoke to Jessica Shepherd, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Verywell Health, who shared ways to help this process—which are equally useful for non-physicians too. 

Practice Self-Compassion

Research shows toxic self-blame is at the root of burnout for many physicians (especially women). Beware of the tendency to think everything is your fault.

When you catch yourself being overly critical or blaming yourself too much, ask what you'd say to a friend. Then, give yourself those same kind, compassionate words. 

Seek Online Therapy

Some physicians are afraid to seek help in their communities due to fears that a mental health diagnosis could impact their careers.

Most online therapy programs allow patients to use nicknames so they can remain anonymous while seeking treatment. Also, most online therapists don't offer an official diagnosis, which might appeal to anyone who doesn’t want to be labeled with a disorder.

Use Online Screening Tools

Mental Health America offers online screening tools that give anonymous feedback about the likelihood of a mental health diagnosis. This can help you get some objective data about whether you may be experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue. 

Take Time Off

Studies show most physicians only take two weeks off per year, at most. Time away from work is vital to good mental health. Use your vacation time to destress and take care of yourself. 

As physicians and healthcare professionals, take time to make your mental wellness a priority.  Take these small steps to prioritize yourself on National Doctors’ Day:

  • Schedule brief relaxation and stress management breaks.
  • Plan regular therapist consultations.
  • Make time-outs for mental refreshments with deep breathing or meditation.
  • Maintain helpful positive self-talk.
  • Create habits to avoid overgeneralizing fears.
  • Accept that some situations cannot change.
  • Nurture environments that enhance moods of patience, tolerance, and hope.

And if you’re not a doctor, try these tips out too. We have all been impacted by the pandemic and need to prioritize taking care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

A Word From Verywell

As physicians, therapists, and other frontline workers, we must acknowledge that taking care of our mental wellness directly affects our ability to be present and also fully serve our patients. Burnout can easily create toxic environments in all spectrums of our lives.

We hope this moment of mental pause can help reassure you of the quality time and attention that you deserve today on National Doctors’ Day and every day.

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