Healing from the emotional aftermath of COVID-19

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published January 20, 2023

Key Takeaways

December 2022 was the first time I left the country since the end of 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I spent 6 weeks in Mexico, soaking up every moment, eating every taco, and reflecting on the past 2 years—which were so intense that they caused me to take a step back from bedside medicine and make a career pivot.

As I was sitting on a dive boat in Cozumel on New Year's Day, the male diver next to me exclaimed that he traveled the most during the COVID-19 pandemic and exclaimed that he had never caught COVID-19—not even once. I just stared at him as he asked me, “Did you travel much during the pandemic? Wasn’t it great?”

“No,” I responded, “I did not travel at all, as I was working in the ER 5 hours away from my home. In fact, this is my first actual vacation since the end of 2019.” I then quickly changed the topic to something lighter—most likely about finding the best street tacos on the island.

Related: I worked so much I started to resent healthcare

A tough 2 years

Many physicians are slowly starting to come out of the other side of the biggest pandemic in modern history as they process the past 2 years. We’re starting to travel, speak about our experiences working during the pandemic, take a stance against burnout, and share our emotional and mental pain.

The start of 2020 changed not only the world, but it changed medicine, and the way physicians see the world. Misinformation spread like wildfire, patients stopped trusting doctors, anti-vaccine campaigns were everywhere, emerging COVID-19 variants continued to kill thousands, and unvaccinated patients made demands and threats against doctors. Then Roe v Wade was overturned.

"I started to lose hope in humanity, and I knew I was not the only one."

Kristen Fuller, MD

What brings joy?

One of the primary lessons COVID-19 taught me was that my career does not define who I am as a person. Although my career is something I’m most proud of and humbled by, I have forced myself to dig deep and reflect on what defines me in terms of what brings me joy in the simplest, purest form.

To me, joy comes from so many other things besides being a doctor, such as traveling, being in the mountains, good food, cherished relationships with loved ones, dogs, reading a good book, writing, photography, and long solo runs.

We may have survived COVID-19 and made it out the other side, but we still have a lot of healing to do and a lot of barriers to overcome—especially given the state of our country’s politics in terms of women’s and LGBTQ rights, “anti-vaxers,” conspiracy theories, and other hot-button issues.

"As we welcome a new year, hopefully we can use this new beginning to start the healing process and be prepared for anything else that may come our way."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Here are my suggestions for ways to find happiness as we continue to heal from the effects of recent years.

See the world

Travel outside the country to unwind, decompress, and soak up a different culture. Most people are very respectful when they find out you're a physician and worked during the pandemic.

Experiencing different cultures and people worldwide can help you gain new perspectives you can use in your personal and professional lives. Other cultures may view family, work, and hobbies much differently than Americans, and it can be refreshing to embrace their unique mindset.

Related: So you want to quit medicine

Talk about it

Share your experience working as a physician during COVID-19 by talking about it with friends, journaling, writing a blog, or sharing it on social media or with a medical journal.

Many doctors are publishing “tell-alls” or memoirs about working in medicine during the pandemic. Although you don’t have to write a book, talking about your experiences gives you an outlet while sharing your perspective on what healthcare professionals experienced daily.

After all, how is the general public supposed to know and understand what we went through if we don’t share it?

Seek therapy

Physicians have always benefited from therapy, as we are prone to burnout, emotional stress, mental health issues, and exhaustion.

Seeking help as a part of your healing journey from the COVID-19 pandemic may be extremely beneficial in helping you move forward, not only in your career but also in your personal life.

Related: 'I'm struggling'—When doctors discuss their mental illness

Embrace free time

"I think one of the most important things that COVID-19 taught us is to take time to appreciate the small things in life, such as free time."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Take as much time away from work as you can. Make the most of your free time and use it to do things that you enjoy. Outsource errands or tasks (housecleaning, finances, laundry, etc.) to professional services so you can embrace your free time.

I hope you can use these suggestions to rest, reflect, and heal as you continue in your mission to provide the best care possible to your patients—as well as to yourself.

Read Next: Burnout: Time to get back to your true self

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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