If you are a camper or an avid hiker, you’ve heard of the Campground Rule. It is the rule that whenever you are in a shared space, especially somewhere out in nature, you try to leave that space better than when you found it. Whatever you hike in with, you make sure to hike out with it. Even if it isn’t your trash, you go out of your way to pick it up and take it with you to preserve the place’s natural beauty. It’s a timeless adage that teaches us to protect our surroundings for future enjoyment for generations to come.
But what you may not know about this rule is that it applies to us just as much as it does to nature. Our minds and well-being can be just as beautiful and fragile as any national park; too much negativity and the natural beauty of our mental “campground” will begin to wither and disappear. How we approach our professional lives can decide whether our work goes from a source of joy and light to a pit of sadness and darkness. We need to be active and preemptive in removing this negativity, or “mental trash,” if we keep with our theme to better ourselves and prevent depression or burnout.
Mental trash can come in many shapes or forms. Some days it’s the burden of shame and despair about losing a patient or giving someone a devastating diagnosis. In others, it’s negative self-talk about regret or past mistakes. Unless addressed, we carry these memories with us, let them shape us, and ultimately impact who we are. Most of us, through our training, were taught to “suck it up” and show no weakness. The prevailing thinking at the time was that those who were “tough” could simply tolerate more pain. Mind over matter was a popular phrase. Many clinicians today still use this approach. We know now that painful experiences don’t go away. Over time, these experiences pile up in our conscious and subconscious, influencing our outlook and experience in this clinical life campground.
Knowing we know now about our mental campground, how do we keep it clean? Here are three tips that we can use to help us process negative emotions as they happen:
- Using challenging experiences to fuel strength. Difficult experiences are impossible to avoid, especially in health care. Patients come to you with various ailments, and many of them could have devastating consequences for your patient. While inevitable, the burden of breaking the news and helping falls to us. Since we can’t avoid these moments, it becomes imperative for us to redirect the associated emotions and memories to power learning and growth. If it was a patient’s death, what helped you cope? What didn’t? Determine what pulled you through that moment so that you can use that knowledge in the future. For a more detailed breakdown of using negative experiences to fuel strength, check My Darkest Teacher, another piece I wrote dedicated to what we can learn from our darkest moments.
- Focusing on what makes us happy. There are moments in our career in which we feel like our “best self.” A day where you think that you made a difference, that you were on the top of your game, or simply a day spent without stress doing the thing you love. In the blog, Our Best Moments, I go over how these moments can help lighten the burdens and turmoil of working in health care. You want to focus on a moment that made you think: “This is why I went into medicine.” Reflecting on these moments can allow you to tap into the ideal traits you had at that particular moment in time and use them again. A study by the Public Library of Science has even shown that reflecting on your best self increases your well-being and optimism simply by reframing your state of mind.
- Creating balance in our life. In a 2021 survey, Medscape found that only 35% of physicians make time for well-being in their day-to-day. What’s more, the percentage of physicians that indicated they were happy or extremely happy outside of work dropped from 85% to 53% during the pandemic. One action to improve the balance in life is to raise joy while at work. In her article, Three Ways to Create Happiness, Nurse Director Danielle Graber presents three great tips on doing just that. Finding your happiness in your work means less negativity comes home with you, and more fruitful time off means you can be recharged and ready for what’s next.
Mental trash is inevitable. In life, negativity and hardship often come hand in hand with success and happiness. The key is to elevate those moments of joy while processing any associated negativity, so they don’t drag you down. How do you handle “trash” in your mental campsite? Let us know in the comments below or on Linkedin or Twitter.
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Stefanie Simmons, MD, FACEP is the VP of patient and clinician engagement at Envision Physician Services. She served as University of Michigan/St. Joseph Mercy core faculty and coordinated collaborative care between APPs and physicians. Currently Dr. Simmons contributes to emergency medicine, high performing teams, and clinician self-care curriculum.