• Dr. Nina Ahuja

8 Lessons About Managing Stress I Learned Through My Years as a Surgeon

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

The following is adapted from bestseller Stress in Medicine by Dr. Nina Ahuja.

Black and white photo of stethoscope on a table

I still remember the thrill of putting my own stethoscope around my neck for the first time. It wasn’t just a motivating prop I imagined anymore; it was a diagnostic tool I would use as a real-life MD. The thrill didn’t lessen as my years of training and surgical practice progressed, but it was transformed by the day-to-day realities of being a medical professional.

No matter how much you enjoy the experience of helping and healing people, working in a medical profession will leave you feeling overwhelmed and overworked at times. Here are eight lessons I’ve learned about how to manage the inevitable stresses associated with our work.

1. Recognize that Becoming a Medical Professional is a Unique Journey

When someone decides to pursue medicine, it is generally because they want to make a tangible difference in people’s lives. The journey is filled with highs and lows. Many would say, “Aren’t all professions like that?” Surely they are, but medicine is a meaningful journey in unique ways because these experiences and growth happen in circumstances that deal with the most vulnerable states of being human.

Through most of my journey, I have rarely heard anyone talk about how extraordinary these situations are, but it is essential to remind ourselves that we are all colleagues who face similar situations. We can turn to one another for support with a shared understanding.

2. You Need to Understand Your Own Responses to Stress

Everyone has unique responses to stress. Before you learn how to manage stress effectively, you first need to understand how your responses to stress manifest themselves in your world. What are your emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioral responses to stress? Do you cry? Do you get angry? Do you experience headaches or have trouble sleeping? Do you become forgetful? Feel completely disorganized? Do you begin to eat too much, or perhaps too little?

Once you have a clear grasp on your personal responses to stress, it becomes easier to identify when you are in a stressful state, which in turn helps you manage what you’re experiencing.

3. Try to Become Comfortable with the Unknown

The root of stress is uncertainty. Medical professionals face uncertainty most of the time, which makes them susceptible to chronic stress. Accepting uncertainty is a difficult thing. It challenges your ability to be open and flexible to circumstances that are constantly changing and in unpredictable ways.

Try to reframe your uncertainty as an opportunity for growth. Maybe you’re unsure of the best treatment course for a patient or are concerned about achieving a particular goal. Instead of focusing on what you don’t know, recognize what you do know, do the best you can and accept what comes along as a journey that will teach you important lessons along the way. Reframing uncertainty this way helps increase your comfort with the unknown.

4. Change Your Mindset to Adapt to New Circumstances

In the medical field, new ways of doing things are always on the horizon. Technologies, processes, and systems are constantly changing. If you can adapt to a new idea or approach, your experience with change will often be relatively smooth. If you are unable to adapt to inevitable change, your experience will be much more turbulent and stressful.

The best way to adapt is to change your mindset to allow yourself to accept something new. Be willing to learn from your mistakes and feel comfortable with disappointment. This allows you to free your mind and increase your willingness to try.

5. Speak Your Truth

At the heart of medicine is the ongoing expectation to perform at the highest level and in the best interest of our patients. Every single interaction, every single day, counts—regardless of how overwhelmed, frustrated, or disconnected you may begin to feel along the way. Life in medicine is not easy.

That’s why it’s so important to speak your truth. Medical professionals often keep silent about what they’re going through, but that only perpetuates feelings of disconnection and poor mental health. Don’t worry about being judged as weak, incapable, or difficult. The reality is that we all face significant challenges —we just don’t talk about them. Be willing to challenge this culture of silence for your own well-being, and to help support one another as well.

6. Define Your Own Success

In traditional methods of assessment, your capabilities and potential are measured using external measures of performance. This is what we are used to: grades on exams, our rate of complications, our evaluations from preceptors and peers, our number of research publications and so on.

External measures are important to help identify our strengths and weaknesses from an objective perspective. However, they are not the only measure of success and are arguably less impactful than the internal measures we set for ourselves. Defining your own personal, internal measures of success helps keep external measures in perspective. Shift your primary focus to personal growth, not competition.

7. Mindfulness and Active Reflection are Essential

Mindfulness and active reflection are essential to keeping stress at bay. Mindfulness is the state of being mentally calm and present in the moment. When you’re mindful, you can be more aware of any emotions or thoughts you may be experiencing. Then, with active reflection, you have an opportunity to explore your emotional state, its triggers, and in turn how best to manage your emotional responses.

Introspection requires a level of honesty you may not feel comfortable with facing. But if you are willing to be authentic, difficult moments are learning opportunities that contribute to your growth professionally and personally.

8. Social Support is Crucial for Well-Being

Highs and lows are a normal part of medicine and life in general, and having social support is essential for well-being. I have come to appreciate the value of support in relieving stress from two perspectives: the emotional relief experienced from talking about concerns, and the opportunity created to see things differently.

We all have our own interpretation of events that happen—our perceptions are often influenced by our past experiences, values, beliefs, and biases. Reaching out to others invites new perspectives to consider, which may change your perception and how you respond.

For more advice on managing stress, you can find Stress in Medicine on Amazon.