These habits will make you a better doctor and person

By Physician Sense
Published September 17, 2020

Key Takeaways

Someone asks you what you do, and your knee-jerk reaction is to tell them you’re a doctor. It’s a product of the western lifestyle. We conflate who we are with what we do. For physicians, COVID-19 perhaps has reinforced this tendency. The pandemic reminds you that you’re a doctor, all day every day. 

This is why — perhaps now more than ever — physicians need a sound work-life balance. Habit creation is a proven way to modify behavior. These clinically proven habits will improve your work-life balance and make you a more effective doctor and human being.


Putting your mind on paper helps identify thought patterns and nullify anxiety. A 2018 JMIR Mental Health study showed that web-based journaling prompts that asked patients to reflect on trauma “decreased mental distress and increased well-being relative to baseline.”

Particularly when done first thing in the morning — before reading the news or checking social media — a short journaling session is a useful way to capture whatever your subconscious mind might have been processing while you slept. Think of August Kekulé, the 19th century German organic chemist who identified the shape of benzene molecules after seeing it as an abstraction in a dream.

Journaling may help you solve a clinical conundrum that you’re wrestling with, or identify a series of important personal questions that you’re ruminating over. Barring either of those, it may help keep everyday stress in check.


Mindfulness can be as organized and traditional or as freewheeling as you want. For example, traditional Zen-style meditation requires you to be seated, eyes open, and focusing on your breathing. Less orthodox approaches to mindfulness, including apps such as Headspace, Waking Up and Calm, allow you to take more liberties with how you’re seated and ocular status.

A pilot study published this year in JMIR Mental Health shows that app-based mediation may be an effective way of reducing generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) symptoms in physicians — a driver of burnout. Thirty-four U.S.-based doctors who self-reported GAD symptoms used a meditation app. After 1 month, they reported a 48% reduction in GAD score and after 3 months, a 57% reduction.

Regardless of how you approach a mindfulness practice, it will make you more attentive and less emotionally reactive. This will serve you in your practice, perhaps making you more attuned to the physical and emotional states of your patients. And, your friends and family will benefit from your increased empathy as well.

Physical practice

Mindfulness is great, but you can’t be in your head all the time. Well, you can, but it certainly has some health consequences. CVD, depression and anxiety, as well as orthopedic health consequences, to name a few. The human body was meant to move.

A physical practice will energize you and give you the endurance to make it through a day on your feet, and it will give you a stress-busting outlet. To make it into a habit, it needs to be something you enjoy doing, though. Many make the mistake of taking up a physical practice, such as running, only to discover that they hate it.

You have options. Your physical practice could be something as conventional as lifting weights, or it could be a spiritual/physical hybrid, such as yoga. For example, a 2019 literature review published in Brain Plasticity found that yoga improves the structure and/or function of the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, cingulate cortex, and the default mode network. Yoga may also stave off age-related mental declines, the researchers wrote.

Or, you might pick something that incorporates all three, such as a martial art. For example, a 2019 pilot study published in Military Medicine demonstrated that veterans with PTSD symptoms benefited from 5 months of training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a grappling martial art. “Study participants demonstrated clinically meaningful improvements in their PTSD symptoms as well as decreased symptoms of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety and decreased alcohol use; effect sizes varied from 0.80 to 1.85,” researchers wrote.

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