Self-Care for GPs in the Time of COVID-19

by Dr Amy Litras, Ballarat General Practitioner and HealthPathways GP Editor

In recent days I have, on occasion, had to reassure myself that the chest tightness and palpitations I’m experiencing are not symptoms of COVID-19.

It usually happens at night, when sleep can’t get a grip in the swirling vortex that waits in the background and takes over my mind whenever I have a quiet moment. My mind is desperately trying to process this new reality we all find ourselves in. My mind is trying to make sense of this new virus and its effects on the human body, on our communities, on the economy and on our behaviour.

There is more worry than my mind has known for a long time. I worry that through my work I will infect my family. I worry for my colleagues and for myself. I worry that I won’t be up to the job ahead of me.

Simultaneously my mind is trying to solve a raft of new problems, big and small, that living in the time of coronavirus presents:

  • How do I keep my family, my patients, my community and myself safe?
  • How can we best use the limited resources that we have?
  • How do I manage without toilet paper?
  • How do I explain the gravity of the situation to others without inducing panic?
  • How do I care for myself in this, frankly, terrible time?

These are questions that all GPs will face in coming months.

Taking on your own advice

As a GP I am well informed about the benefits of exercise, good sleep, connecting with nature, mindfulness, mediation, smartphone apps for well being, pets, social connection, laughter and hobbies. We all know these things are important. We all know that they work. GPs are expert in this.

We are experienced at skilfully walking beside our patients through distress and helping them to select the right tools to navigate stress, sadness, grief, trauma and fear. I do think, however, that like many GPs, I need to be reminded to apply the same good advice I give to others to myself. Sometimes we need someone else to remind us. That is why all GPs should have their own GP. Someone who gives us the opportunity to be cared for, someone who allows us to be the patient for a while and is a port of call for when things move beyond situational distress. We all need our own GP to tend to our chronic disease, mental illness and preventative health. Over coming months this will be more important than ever.

We are in this together

One thing that gives me hope is that I will not be facing this alone. I will be standing beside my colleagues, the doctors, nurses, practice managers and reception staff in primary care whom I so admire and from whom I have learnt so much. We in primary care will stand also with our colleagues in the hospitals, who will surely bear the brunt of the sickest. I am going to do my best to be ready to help where I can, to look out for ways to express appreciation or admiration, ways to make each other’s day a little brighter or easier. Caring for each other and nurturing relationships with my colleagues will protect me.

Focusing on the ‘good’

It is easy to despair and lose hope when we are confronted with stripped supermarket shelves, images of people flouting physical distancing advice or angry or unreasonable, demanding patients. It is difficult, but by choosing to approach these situations with compassion, by reminding myself that this behaviour is usually driven by fear, ignorance or feelings of helplessness, comes with less personal cost and wasted emotional energy than getting angry, upset or taking it personally. Instead of losing faith or becoming more cynical I’m going to try to focus on the good, the kind and compassionate acts that are going on everywhere in our community. There are plenty of people out there right now engaging in astounding acts of kindness and service all around me. It is just harder to see because it doesn’t get the same airplay.

Care for yourself

I will not be immune to bad behaviour either. Stress, frustration, fear are going to cause me to lose my composure at some point. Maybe it will be speaking harshly to a colleague or family member.  Maybe it will be saying no when I feel I should have say yes. Maybe it will be because at that moment, I will just have nothing left to give. It is important above everything to turn our compassion inwards, to allow ourselves forgiveness and understanding to counteract the inevitable guilt. Guilt in this situation is likely to be both counterproductive and misplaced.

So how am I going to care for myself? I’m going to cuddle my kids, my cat and my husband. I’m going Face Time my parents, extended family and friends. I’m going to find reasons to laugh and make others laugh. I’m going to limit the time I spend absorbing news and social media. I’m going to listen to more music and watch Bluey with my kids. I’m going to make a ritual of naming the things I’m grateful for, such as a job that gives me a sense of purpose and the fortune to live in a country with excellent quality of healthcare. I’m going to give up on perfection and aim for good enough. I’m going to do my best to be useful but kind to myself when I falter.

Above all I’m going to make a vow to myself that when I need help, whatever type of help that may be, I will reach out.

Please remember that the follow services are available:

Infographic – Taking Care of Yourself in Times of Stress

Taking Care of Yourself in Times of Stress - Self Care for Primary Health Providers