My days are getting longer with hours filled with frantic emails and my phone buzzing as I play phone tag with my advisors. I am drafting an IRB application for my research and applying to grants to fund travel to conferences this year, and in between all that is financial planning and a list of anxieties growing in the back of my mind. It’s an exciting time, but also one that has put me more on edge and made me a little more moody. I wrestled with the question of whether or not to go to my mat this evening, but I found that pull of wellness to do so. With the rise of both physician and medical student burnout – that silent epidemic of depression and exhaustion that threatens the integrity of a clinician’s identify – I knew that I had to take a deep breath and do what I know my future self would thank me for. So I went to yoga, de-stressed, surrounded myself with positive optimistic people and eased into the evening with a homemade blackberry carrot mango peach kale smoothie. Of course it’s vegan, dairy free (made with hemp and coconut milk) and topped with chia seeds and yummy matcha. As I sipped my smoothie, crouched on a hard uncomfortable kitchen chair (…I really need to buy seat cushions…said me last year and here I am complaining), I mused on wellness, what it means to me and how I keep it alive in my life.
Wellness is NOT the practice of being perfect, but the practice of being mindful, intentional and real.
When I entered medicine, I realized the importance of wellness, which is a vague term. For me, wellness is the practice of self-awareness: checking in on how we feel, being mindful of what and WHY we are doing what we do in our careers, in our families and our lives. It’s essentially a way of living that is more intentional. Intentional living. It’s something I think a lot of us would benefit from.
Here are a few of the ways I keep wellness alive in the fast-paced high-stress world of medicine:
- Journaling: I try to make journaling happen at least once a week. Ideally, every day would be best but for me, once a week is more realistic. My journals are more like weekly personal newsletters than daily logs, but that’s okay. Do what works for you. The point is to have time dedicated to writing freely, writing for yourself. For me, writing is a way to think on paper rather than think so much in my mind that anxiety and mental paralysis sets in. So write away.
- Candlelight: I am a cavewoman at night. That is, I prefer candlelight to fluorescent orbs of bright searing light. Fluorescent lights remind me of the sterile environment of the hospital: they highlight detail meticulously and provide the perfect visual clarity you would want in a hospital where practitioners need to examine swollen legs, bruised skin or dry mucous membranes. But when I’m home, I prefer to see my world in soft-focus: dim with shimmers of color and invisible wisps of aromatherapy. So candles is the way I go when I can when I get home.
- Tea Please: I’m a tea-lover. I have a cabinet FULL OF TEA. Most of them are chamomile based. I also have ginger, lemon, decaf green jasmine, rooibos, dandelion and mint. Tea is calming for me. The warmth is soothing and I like the feeling of holding a big steaming cup of tea as I linger into bed. Tea was my salve after long days in college as a pre-med/varsity fencer/art history major college student. Tea continued to be my best friend during those long all-nighters in graduate school and during those long lectures in medical school. ME + TEA = LOVE.
- Coloring: This is something I don’t personally do. I’m more of a sketcher and painter and photographer. I express my creativity in these ways. But coloring has gained so much popularity reflected in the impressive rise of adult coloring books, that it’s worth a bullet point on this short list. The point is: creativity can be a wellness practice because it can free us up from the spiraling trap of anxieties and stress. As a former art teacher, I believe that practicing playful creative expression can have a positive psychological impact. In fact, a recent compelling study by the Mayo Clinic even suggested that engaging in artistic activities may delay cognitive decline. So get out those crayons or brushes or pens or pencils! Get to art-making!
The reality of wellness is that is a struggle at times. Wellness is PRACTICE, which means that we need to live it and not just talk about it and write up goals for it. We need to do it. And because it is an actual lived practice that means that at times there will be moments when we screw up: we forget to check-in with ourselves and end up holding stress for longer than necessary or we let little things get to us and crawl under our skin until we lash out on someone else (an ego defense which psychologists call displacement). The point is that we aren’t perfec. Wellness is not the practice of perfection, but the practice of being mindful, intentional and real.