By Lynn Hetzler
The holidays are stressful for nearly everyone, but especially for physicians already juggling busy practices or long shifts at the hospital. Many GI fellows and other gastroenterologists also have young families who are anticipating the full gamut of seasonal festivities, from decking the halls and family gatherings to buying piles of presents under the tree for the children to open.
Holiday stress will be particularly palpable this year, with COVID-19 playing the part of the Grinch. In a July 2020 survey, researchers asked physicians to rate their stress levels on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being not stressed at all and 7 being extremely stressed. Male physicians rated their stress levels as 5 out of 7, while female doctors rated their stress as a level 6 during the pandemic.
Fortunately, there are several ways gastroenterologists and GI fellows can make the upcoming holidays a little less stressful and more enjoyable.
5 Tips for a Less Stressful Holiday Season
Assess your priorities
The holidays often zoom by at a blistering pace and there is rarely enough time to accomplish everything on your holiday “To Do” list. Stretching yourself too thin can leave you feeling stressed, and falling short of your goals can cause disappointment. Assess your priorities to determine which holiday activities are most meaningful to you.
Pro tip: Perform an honest assessment of your priorities – if you feel that you need some time alone to rest and recharge, for example, identify alone time as a priority.
Create a reasonable schedule
Striking a balance between work and home life is always difficult for physicians, but finding equilibrium in the work-life balance is particularly difficult during the holidays – and the pandemic is tipping the work-life scales in the wrong direction for many gastroenterologists and GI fellows.
To avoid stretching yourself too thin, create a reasonable schedule that gives you enough time to enjoy the holidays. Start by penciling in the events you cannot change, such as work shifts and holiday events. Discuss your scheduling needs and expectations with your family and employers/co-workers to reduce the risk of overstretching yourself. Take early action to build an accommodating schedule; trade shifts with a co-worker, for example, or move a holiday meal to a different day or time.
Be sure schedule some time to focus on your priorities. Block out an afternoon to watch a holiday movie with the family, for instance.
Pro tip: To avoid “COVID-somnia,” schedule enough time for quality sleep. Results from a 2008 study suggest doctors get an inadequate amount of sleep as it is; a May 2020 study shows working with COVID patients disrupts physicians’ sleep even more.
Adjust your expectations
Nearly everyone is counting on the joy of the holidays to make up for a rough year. However, having excessively high expectations of the holiday can bring about stress and disappointment – this may be especially true this year, as COVID prevents the large family meals, holiday parties, gift exchanges, and other traditions.
To get a better handle on stress during the 2020 holiday season, you may have to adjust your expectations. You may not be able to host the holiday meal for your extended family, for example, or you may have to miss the meal altogether. Downsizing your holiday expectations can help you reach your goals.
Pro tip: Go easy on yourself – start with as few expectations as possible
Make safe, stress-free choices for yourself and your family, patients, and co-workers
Nothing is more stressful than worrying that you have spread COVID to the people who mean the most. Make responsible decisions, such as spending the holidays at home or hosting a virtual dinner. In those circumstances where you cannot stay at home, be extra vigilant about social distancing and donning PPE.
Pro tip: Learn to say no to invitations to large gatherings, and extra shifts in high-risk areas during the holidays; insist on mask wearing, social distancing, and other mitigation strategies when gatherings and high-risk work are unavoidable
Learn to recognize and relieve stress
Occupational stress is common in gastroenterologists and other physicians. Stress can also lead to physician burnout, which can contribute to the failure in a physician’s personal relationships, negatively affect the quality of care the doctor provides, increase medical errors and increase the risk of malpractice, reduce patient outcomes and decrease patient satisfaction. Stress can also put the physician’s health at risk.
The American Institute of Stress provides an extensive list of 50 common signs and symptoms of stress, which include:
- Frequent headaches
- Teeth grinding
- Increased frustration, irritability, edginess
- Overreaction to petty annoyances
The Maslach Burnout Inventory lists three signs of physician burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Low sense of personal accomplishment
Address the stress of holidays through:
- Exercising regularly
- Taking a “time out” when you feel stressed
- Eating balanced meals
- Limiting alcohol and caffeine
- Maintaining a positive attitude
- Practicing mindfulness to help counteract the worrying, perfectionism and self-judgment common among physicians
- Walking away for a moment when confronted with a stressful situation
- Taking a few deep breaths before engaging
Pro tip: Identify your personal triggers and make a plan to avoid or manage these stressors
Implementing some of these tips can help you enjoy the holidays more than you thought you would, despite COVID-19. With a little planning and some positive thinking, you can find peace and joy during the holidays at home and in the endoscopy suite.
Lynn Hetzler was a Medical Assistant for 20 years, working in hospitals, universities and medical laboratories, and has been a leading writer in the medical field for another 20 years. She specializes in creating informative and engaging medical content for readers of all levels, from patients to researchers and everyone in between.