What my rabbi taught me about being a healthier, happier physician

As we welcome another year, many of us make resolutions to live a better life, usually one that is healthier than the year before. As I planned my own resolutions for 2015, I was reminded of a talk given by my rabbi, David Ingber of Romemu. His sermon centered on the Torah portion about the importance of “the Shemittah” or the sabbatical year, noting how we as a society should be observing the “five Rs” for a happy, healthy and fruitful life.

I was instantly inspired by his philosophy, which not only resonated with me as a physician but also as a mother and a wife. It occurred to me that sharing this important viewpoint is the perfect way to start a new year and inspire other physicians and caregivers — who selflessly take care of others but often neglect their own health — to set a pathway for continued health and prosperity in 2015 and in the years to come.

In short order, the five Rs include: rest, reflect, release, reset, restart/reboot. Being a clinical scientist, I researched all of these and found evidence to support and validate the importance of each one. Indeed, the rabbi’s thinking was not only spiritual, logical and inspirational; it was clinically supported as essential for improving all aspects life.

So, in the spirit of setting New Year’s resolutions I hope I can inspire you and your colleagues to adopt one or all of the 5 Rs for a healthier lifestyle.

1. Rest. There’s a reason why rest is number one on this list: Rest plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your entire life span. We know that rest is a critical component to living a healthy lifestyle no matter what age or stage. Proper rest, including ample sleep, rejuvenates one’s body and mind, helps with mood regulation, increases our ability to learn, fight illness, and is associated with a myriad of other health benefits. Conversely, not getting enough rest can negatively affect one’s mood, immune system, stress level, and many other aspects of life.

Resolution. Find downtime. Since many physicians struggle with sleeping for long periods of time, finding downtime is even more important. Try napping. In several studies, a nap of even 10 minutes improved cognitive function and vigor, and decreased sleepiness and fatigue. If we can train ourselves to take regular breaks—true breaks without working, checking email, texting, etc. — and also set aside time for naps and restful contemplation, we will be in a much more powerful position to care for ourselves and others.

2. Reflect. Reflection is characterized as “the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience.” We’ve all learned lessons from past experiences. Research proves that continuing to reflect before doing makes us more productive, healthier and ultimately happier. Making time to reflect — or as I say, to pause — is another critical component to living a healthy lifestyle.

Resolution: Take a moment to pause. It may only take a moment to pause, or to take a step back and reflect on something before doing it that may make a world of difference in your life. People choose to reflect in different ways. Many consider meditation a way of reflecting; others choose to see reflection as a daily task whether first thing in the morning or at the end of the day before bedtime. In whichever way you decide to reflect, I assure you it’s worth taking just a few minutes per day to discover what learnings can be found from your interactions with others, including your patients.

3. Release. Letting go of negative energy is the foundation for rejuvenating yourself and creating a path forward to achieve your best in life. Forgiveness and the “release” of grudges free us of negative emotions that can hold us back and also damage our health. Nearly everyone has been hurt by the actions or words of another. Perhaps your mother criticized your parenting skills, a colleague betrayed your trust, or a patient did not follow your recommended treatment plan. These experiences can leave us with lasting feelings of hurt, bitterness or anxiety — all of which brings added stress and potentially depression, too. Clinically speaking, “holding on” to negative feelings can also contribute to higher blood pressure which increases the risk for heart disease and stroke.

Resolution: Forgive yourself and others. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. As the wise Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.” Take a moment to reflect on releasing negativity from your life (you’ll also be accomplishing Rs two and three!). Take time to be magnanimous and always treat yourself and others with dignity and respect.

4. Reset. With the explosion of digital gadgets and computers in today’s times, we are often forced to power down and “reset” from time-to-time to make things work more efficiently. With the increased expectations of physicians and caregivers alike, we too need to reset – yet we often do not. This can lead to serious consequences on our mental and physical well-being. In a recent New York Times article, Daniel J. Levitin, the author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, describes the need for avoiding overload and the importance of hitting the reset button in your brain. If you’re not already compelled to reset, you will be after reading this piece. As we deal with life’s daily challenges, a personal reset is vital to being our best selves. It’s especially important after the release of negative emotions (the third R!).

Resolution: Power down to reset your brain. A holistic reset is in order — particularly at the start of a new year — where we tweak our routines and take time for a kinder, slower-paced, renewed way of life. It may be that you need to take a daily walk, cherish your weekend time or actually power off your smart devices each night. However you choose to reset, know that even a little bit of powering down goes a long way.

5. Restart/reboot. It’s quite possible that after you’ve rested, spent time reflecting, releasing and resetting your brain, you may realize that you’re not fulfilled or truly happy with your life choices. That is when you may need a total reboot. Changing course and starting a new chapter can be overwhelming and scary, however one R you don’t want to face is regret. Regret of not taking care of yourself, or the regret of not chasing your dreams can haunt you for a very long time.

On a personal note, I know about this. After 20 years as an attending radiologist, my husband Haskel became restless, unhappy and unfulfilled. He exhibited signs of discontent with himself and with his life in general, and sought answers and a path to fulfillment. He returned to his daily practice of meditation and after months of reflection came to the realization that he wished to begin a new life chapter and fulfill a dream of becoming a psychiatrist.

Four grueling years later (and surviving being the oldest trainee in his program), he is now a practicing psychiatrist and therapist who is healthier, happier and much more balanced. He did a total reboot and as a result, today he is more focused than ever on what’s important to him. I’ve been lucky to pursue my dreams of becoming a cardiologist and professor of cardiology, but like many, I still struggle with balancing motherhood, being a wife and finding downtime. We all have our “thing” — I believe it’s all in how we choose to balance and become a better version of ourselves that makes the difference.

Resolution: Don’t wait to restart. Decide what needs rebooting in your life and make small changes that lead to bigger changes. Don’t wait until it’s too late—or worse—live with regret. Life’s too short.

I suspect there are others “Rs” we could add to this list (such as relationships and resiliency, which is particularly important to physicians), but at its core this list is a comprehensive foundation for healthy and happier life. As the Rabbi says: “We must start somewhere.” I hope this philosophy inspires you as it did me.

Jennifer H. Mieres is a professor of cardiology and population health, Hofstra-North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine, Hempstead, NY. She can be reached on Twitter @DrJMieres.

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