You’re stronger than you think

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I suspect the last few weeks have caused many of us to reflect on what’s ahead in the next couple months. For me, I’ve also tried to reflect on my past experience to see what I could draw on to help manage what is to come. Many people have compared this pandemic to a war. We talk about people being on the front lines against a common enemy. We talk about sending people into battle and how we need to provide everyone with the personal protective equipment to keep them safe. We hear about how some countries have had to triage causalities and choose who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t.

I haven’t heard so many military references since I retired, but there are many similarities. Because of this, I want to share what I’ve learned in a war zone and as the Director of Mental Health for the Canadian Armed Forces after Canada had been in Afghanistan for many years.

The reality is that anyone working in the health care field will put their physical and mental health at risk during this crisis. People will change as a result of this experience, but not necessarily in a negative way. It may not make sense now, but long-term success will come from controlling what you can control, making the choices you can and not dwelling on things you cannot control. 

One of the challenges from someone who ends up in a war, is that they may not agree with the political basis to the conflict and, therefore, why they’re there. This can lead to a great deal of ethical conflict and when death or injury happen, it’s hard to reconcile the ethical conflict they have with the outcome. In the case of our conflict with COVID-19, the vast majority of us went into health care to help others in need. Therefore the purpose of being on the front lines should be ethically clear to everyone. For that reason, there is already a protective effect. 

There will be many challenges ahead of us; from my experience, those who grow from these experiences do so because they focus on what they can control and let go of what they can’t control. They do the very best they can with what they have, no matter where they are, and they take pride in doing so. It doesn’t mean they can save everyone, but they know they did their best with what they had. Most importantly they choose to learn from the situation. 

Those who do well also look for positives in a negative situation. Anyone who works with cognitive behavioral therapy will tell you that how we think, feel, and act, all interact together.  We can choose to see all the negative and suffer as a result, or we can look for the positive and how we can grow from that.

Here are a few things I think will be helpful over the months to come.

  1. Be supportive of each other and find opportunities to learn. When there is a bad outcome, don’t dwell on the negative and look for blame. Look for learnings that are within your control and identify how to prevent it from happening again.
  2. Everyday make a list of what went well. That doesn’t mean you ignore what didn’t go well, but it’s easy to ignore the good unless you take time to focus on it. You can identify the things that need to be improved, but the list needs to be seen as opportunities.
  3. Focus on what you can control in the moment. Don’t be distracted by what is out of your control.
  4. Recognize the challenges that exist, but find time to also enjoy yourself. Find ways to make each other laugh. We don’t have to be in a constant state of suffering.
  5. Look after each other and focus on that common enemy. Fighting amongst each other is not productive.
  6. Take pride in the work you do and the work your team does.

Those who wish to focus on what’s wrong, and not where there are opportunities to learn, will have an increased risk of burnout and mental illness. Those who embrace the reality, learn from the experience and adapt to the new reality will have a much greater chance of coming out of this stronger than when they went into it.

I know we are entering into a time of great stress and this will put many people’s mental and physical health at risk—please recognize you have more control than you think. We have a choice to suffer or a choice to learn and grow. Let’s all decide to learn and grow together.

Scott