Three minutes to stop and breathe: how an app changed my working life

This blog was written for the BMA.

Exhausted, losing weight, looking miserable. This was not how I had imagined my life as a doctor.

As the F1 on acute medicine I struggled to balance treating my patients well and looking after myself. There is no shortcut to learning how to deal with a patient with severe chest pain, an angry family wanting to speak right away and a microbiology consultant on the phone, all at the same time. In the end the skills I learned – such as how to prioritise – still help me to this day. But that came at a cost to my physical and mental health.

I would bend over backwards for my patients but I wouldn’t prioritise myself, my lunch breaks or my right to hand over jobs. And long term, tired doctors aren’t in their optimum state to look after patients.

I did the best I could, but I knew this couldn’t carry on for two years. I made changes, I went to the gym more, made sure I enjoyed all my time off and started meditating.

No junior doctor gets to the end of two years without major highs and lows. It’s a learning curve, and I learnt the hard way just how important it is to look after myself. One day at the end of F2, I was doing nights, and I had to pack up my house and drive my stuff over 200 miles to my parents’ house, pack for a friend’s wedding and sort out accommodation on the opposite side of the country for my new job. I felt acutely stressed and needed something to help.

I remembered my GP teaching – we’d been recapping treatments for depression and our tutor mentioned the Headspace app, recommending we try it. In my moment of panic, I downloaded it and did a three-minute exercise: sitting on a chair and breathing. Easy, right? Well, harder than you might think actually, but that three-minute pause was what I needed. It got me out of my ‘oh my God’ state and into ‘let’s do this’. Thankfully there was no chanting, no annoying music and no great demand on my time.

It helped me when I was feeling stressed, but also when I wasn’t. ‘Prevention is better than cure’: we say this to our patients all the time, in the guise of ‘what’s your diet like?’ or ‘do you smoke?’, but the same can be said about mental health.

When I was on holiday and waiting to start working in radiology, my friend, also a doctor, found it strange that I would continue to meditate every day. But I knew that radiology and moving across the country would have its own challenges, and I wanted to keep up the habit.

I wasn’t wrong. I’m now a few months into training, working and preparing for exams. It’s both the best and worst thing about medicine: you’re never finished. And then you have life’s ups and downs too.

For me, Headspace gives me time away from all of that. Time just for me; sometimes it’s the only time I get. I use it when I can – sometimes on the park and ride into work, on my lunch break or at the end of the day. All you need is a phone and headphones. Half the time people must think I’m napping! And some days I can’t fit it in, and that’s OK too.

Everyone needs a moment to just stop and breathe. I wish I had used Headspace earlier as a doctor. On those busy crazy days, a three-minute ‘time out’ to regroup would have been really beneficial. It’s easy to be sceptical – I know meditation seems hippy and new age to some people – but my advice is, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

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