As a physician and mother of six, I have spent a lot of my life in ?survival mode?? trying to take care of my family and my patients and keep everyone well and happy. I didn’t think much about the idea of ?thriving? until a few years ago.
Medical training in the 80?s was mostly about surviving? learning how to help our patients survive, and trying to survive ourselves through years of lectures, exams, sleep deprivation, and exhaustion. During my years of medical school, residency, and fellowship I had hundreds of hours of lectures on everything that could go wrong with the body– diseases from A to Z. We learned diagnostic skills and treatment options for many of these diseases, most of which we would likely never encounter in clinical practice. Interestingly, I can’t remember having even one lecture on what ?health? or ?wellness? was? even how to define health.? The presumption was that health was the absence of these diseases we studied, just as mental health was presumed to be the absence of a diagnosis of mental illness.
We learned to survive on little sleep, bad hospital food, and lots of coffee during our years of training. We were so exhausted when we did have time off that we rarely exercised. When I was pregnant during my medical residency, I took extra nights on call so as to ?make up? for the calls I would miss during my six week maternity leave. (I wanted to show that I could ?pull my weight? in what was then still a male-dominated residency.) For this and my subsequent pregnancies I was able to work right up until the time I delivered, sometimes even delivering other babies while I was in early labor myself.
I adored my role as mother and was able to survive the added sleep deprivation that new motherhood added to medical training? sometimes I even got more sleep at the hospital than I did at home! We moved back to Atlanta when both of us had finished our training, and continued to juggle patient care with child care as we added more wonderful children to the family.? Eventually I took time off from work to spend more time with my family, but I filled my days with school activities and a major house renovation.
As I struggled to keep up this crazy pace of life, my body began to tell me that I was not thriving. I developed a variety of stress-related medical issues that forced me to stop and take a look at what I was doing to myself. This was the beginning of a wake up call for me? a realization that I had to start taking care of myself or I would not be able to take care of anyone-especially my children.
First I began to treat myself to better food and more exercise time. Instead of grabbing fast food on the run I began to enjoy healthy lunches with a variety of vegetables and fruits. I started to work out twice a week with a trainer when I realized that unless I scheduled exercise into my week and had someone holding me accountable, my days would somehow be filled with other activities and errands. I also began to walk more when I noticed that getting outside and walking regularly helped me feel more calm and relaxed. I found I had more energy and felt less sluggish after eating well and exercising, so it was easy to sustain this change.
Around this time I came across a number of books that would help transform my thoughts about health and healing and the medical profession. These leaders in Integrative Medicine wrote about their experiences combining the best of high-tech medicine with lifestyle changes such as nutrition education, exercise programs, stress reduction techniques, and other healing modalities such as acupuncture, massage, and healing touch. I began to realize how little I had learned in medical school about nutrition, exercise, or the connections between emotional health and physical health. I embarked on an intensive study of each of these areas, and was fascinated to see the scientific evidence that supported these connections.
As I continue on the crash course in everything I did not learn in medical school, I am still working on changing the patterns and habits that kept me surviving but not thriving. I feel healthier and happier than I have since medical school, and as I have put my own care as a priority, I think I have become a better mother and physician. My review of the scientific evidence and my own experience have helped me come up with the following mnenonic as I try to summarize the ingredients for ?thriving?:
E– Eat Well (mostly plants, not too much, eat mindfully)
M– Mindfulness/meditation (many health benefits shown)
B– Be kind to yourself (self-compassion, self-care)
R– Rest (sleep >7 hours/night)
A– Activities you love
C– Community (social connections, healthy relationships)
E– Exercise (mental as well as physical benefits!)
L-Love and laughter
I– Integrate different healing modalities (what works for you?)
F– Find purpose (using your strengths to help others)
E– Enjoy! (Play, fun, get outdoors)
What is your prescription for thriving?