Learning to Relax: Tips for Busy Doctors

Cute dog relaxing

Relaxation is more than a feeling – it’s also a skill everyone should develop. I’d say relaxation isn’t something that tends to happen all by itself. Instead, you need to create it.

But the twisted reality is that busier people are often the most in need of some relaxing ‘me’ time, yet they’re also the ones who find it most challenging to obtain.

One common reason for this failure to relax is feeling like you don’t have time to ‘waste’. There’s too much to be done – too much to worry about – even if you aren’t going to do it right now. You might be craving the relief a good bout of relaxation brings, but your mental focus is all over the place. In those confused and overwhelmed moments, self-criticism takes over, and seeking relaxation feels more like a lazy or irresponsible way to behave.

On the other hand, perhaps you just don’t know how to relax, or the activities you think are relaxing aren’t as rejuvenating as you think.

I’m going to help you with all of these problems today.

First of all, I’d like to remind you why relaxation is important. During our days of working with patients, we face a barrage of stressors and moments of anxiety. Think of, for example, the experience during an important surgery or life-saving procedure, diagnostic decisions that could have serious consequences, or even those doubt-filled (and potentially embarrassing) times where you do need to pick up the phone and speak to a consultant to get their advice.

Constant exposure to stress and anxiety gradually wears us down. Without the recuperation of relaxation, we’re like a piece of machinery that never gets serviced but is always in use – and that’s a recipe for breakdown.

Once burnout sets in and the breakdown begins, the cascading failures that spread throughout all corners of life – from our physical state, to our relationships, quality of work, and mental health – are devastating.

Prevention being preferable to cure, here are a few quick tips on relaxation, so you can help give burnout the slip before it gets a grip.

 

Breathing

When we’re stressed, we tend to take shallow breaths. This starts a feedback loop that makes us feel even more stressed, and can even lead to full-blown panic attacks. Thanks, evolution!

When you’re starting to feel stressed or anxious, give yourself a moment to breathe deeply. Breathe in slowly, while counting to four in your head, and then breathe out at the same slow rate. Focus on the breath, not on whatever the problem is that’s causing you stress.

This works best when inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth, adding an extra layer of physical control that helps you to divert your train of thought and focus on what’s real in the present: the careful control of your breath.

This tip is simple but powerful – because it can be done anywhere, at any time. It’s about mindful breathing, offering a combination of physical and mental distraction that helps prevent escalation. If you need further relaxation, progressively extend the count, and continue breathing deeply for up to five minutes.

Any time you’re thinking “man, I really need to relax”, but your mind is racing and you can’t stop thinking about what’s coming up tomorrow – focus on your breathing. Let that bring you down to a more manageable level, and then move on to an activity or hobby you enjoy.

 

Mindfulness

Don’t be too quick to brush this one off. Like many things, mindfulness is a buzzword right now – and, sadly, that means it can be (and often is) misused.

That aside, it’s about bringing mental awareness into your body and focusing on the here and now. Here’s an easy way to do it: sit down, close your eyes, and imagine scanning your body like an MRI scanner. Start with the top of your head. Bring your awareness there. Think about how that part of your body feels right now.

Is there any pain? What temperature or sensation can you feel there? Don’t focus on any individual point too much – just be actively aware of it. (Funnily enough, starting at the head, you’ll probably begin to feel an itch in your scalp.)

Continue scanning down your body in the same way. Let your mind move over your face, neck, back, torso, arms, hands, fingers. If you’re not used to the ‘body scan’ technique, it can feel a little weird. A number of useful techniques like this one are a form of meditation – and I always say it: meditation isn’t for everyone, but it’s always worth a try.

So don’t worry if you feel silly the first few times you try this. It’s only natural, because we very, very rarely operate with this kind of active connection between body and mind. Of course it’s going to feel weird, or even ridiculous.

But there’s no need to be embarrassed. No-one knows what’s going on in the privacy of your mind, and you don’t have to excuse your methods of relaxation to anyone.

 

Friendship

Friendship is wonderful medicine. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true.

If you’re lucky enough to work with a close friend, then talk to them. Even five minutes chatting is enough to bring down your stress levels. If you’re feeling really worked up, see if you can arrange a mate-date in the future to talk it out with an empathetic ear. Planning future fun events gives you a boost, and makes for a more relaxing time in the run-up.

If everyone you work with is a jerk or – more likely – also just dealing with more than enough responsibilities and worries of their own, you could contact a friend outside work. Talking is best because you can hear their familiar and reassuring voice. Text messages are okay, but they lack true human connection and could even be misconstrued – leading to more problems when you’re already feeling under pressure.

Human connection is one of the most valuable resources for wellbeing that we have. To leave it out of the picture is a dreadful misstep. Sadly, that’s often exactly what we do when we’re in a state of burnout – we crawl inside ourselves and try to handle the fight alone, for fear of dragging others down or affecting how they see us.

But real friends, and true family, will always have your back. They can’t help if you don’t tell them. If you really do dread the idea of speaking to those closest to you, then an ideal solution is to get in touch with a reliable third party like myself, or approach a licensed therapist.

Strong personal connections can be, quite literally, a lifesaver.

Relaxation is not a big enough priority for many doctors. Now I hope I’ve reminded you why it is important, and offered three simple methods to help you feel more relaxed when you’re busy.

For the final point: I know you might read this and immediately tell yourself you’re too busy for even these little exercises. Stop right there – because you’re exactly the type of person who will benefit most from them.

If you feel that life is so busy and stressful you can’t give yourself five minutes to breathe, then you are perilously close to a living nightmare. Please look after yourself, or you’ll be no help to anyone.

I’ve already been there. You deserve much better. And that’s why I do what I do.