A couple of weeks ago, I was catching up with a friend, sitting on the lawn of Osgoode Hall, enjoying the shade of a maple tree and good conversation. We were talking about the practical philosophy course I teach at the college and a concept that often comes up in class – balance – balance between professional and personal, but also balance within one’s self. As a healthcare practitioner, striving for balance proves ever more salient when thinking about the proverb “physician, heal thyself.” So when she asked me, “What do you do for self-care?,” I could have cheekily answered that I plan lunch dates with friends that include some amount of time connecting with nature, even in downtown Toronto.
The truth is I haven’t always been as good as I’d like to be at taking care of myself. Admittedly, I have spent the last 3+ years building a private practice, teaching, and writing while being a stay-at-home mom to two kids, a barely possible task that made life a serious struggle for about a year. I confess I have a tendency to take on too much, and a predisposition to setting higher expectations for myself than others.
Apparently, I’m not alone. Although psychologists and mind-body practitioners have long stressed the need for practitioner self-care, it is easily lost in a business of caring for others. While doctors tend to enjoy an above average health status similar to others in advantaged socio-economic groups, they may also be at greater risk for stress-related problems, mental illness, suicide, and substance abuse.[1,2] Presenteeism (going to work even when you’re ill) in the medical profession continues to be a problem, with many doctors reporting they can’t find time to visit a doctor.
But back to my friend’s question about self-care. Ever since the day I realized I was suffering with post-partum depression after my second child was born, I restarted a daily practice of mindfulness that I had unintentionally abandoned at a prenatal yoga class two years before. This mindfulness now takes on many different forms: breathing, walks in the woods, meditation, weekly visits to Body Blitz, contrast showers, dry skin brushing, twice yearly detoxes, regular visits with my own healthcare providers, etc. Now, more than ever, I understand the importance of physician self-care – it’s not just about avoiding burnout or modeling self-care for patients – it’s about becoming ourselves, de-territorializing (see the work of Deleuze and Guattari), and opening up new possibilities for biopsychosocial health and an embodied self.
“…it is only when we are willing to go beneath the surface
into the stillness and depth of our being that we truly find ourselves
and create the authentic path our stream should follow”
– Bernie Siegel
- Australian Medical Association. Health and wellbeing of doctors and medical students [position paper on the internet]. 2011 April [cited 2011 July 11]. Available from: http://ama.com.au/node/6551.
- Miller MN, Mcgowen KR. The painful truth: physicians are not invincible. South Med J [serial on the internet]. 2000 [cited 2011 July 11];93(10):966-973. Available from: http://journals.lww.com/smajournalonline/Abstract/2000/10000/The_Painful_Truth__Physicians_Are_Not_Invincible.4.aspx.
- Jena AB et al. Presenteeism among resident physicians. JAMA [serial on the internet]. 2010 [cited 2011 July 11];304(11):1166-1168. Available from: http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/304/11/1166.2.full.