Throughout my years as a physician, I have had an abundance of moments of fear. Typically, this fear has been related to concern for my patients. A fetal bradycardia requiring an emergency Cesarean section, a postpartum woman hemorrhaging despite all first line medications and procedures, a woman with a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and dropping hemoglobin. The fear that I have felt over the last month has been different. It’s a fear that I cannot combat with my experience because I have none. It’s a fear that involves not only the well-being of my patients; but also my family, my colleagues, and myself. Sometimes it has felt debilitating. I have found myself imagining the absolute worst-case scenario in full detail. Maybe you have felt something similar.
It is more difficult to comfort and reassure my patients when there is so much uncertainty. I can offer little solace to newly postpartum women who are alone at home without the help and support that they had been planning on. The task of balancing my roles as a physician and mother has been much more challenging as this pandemic has blurred the lines. My fear doesn’t stop when I get home. It continues as I worry if I am putting my family at risk. It increases when I allow myself to wonder what will happen to me and my current pregnancy if I get sick.
Despite the fear that I have, I remain grateful for my job. It doesn’t feel as easy as it did two months ago, with attestations regarding the absence of respiratory symptoms, constant emails, and policy changes, wearing a mask while trying to comfort my patients. However, I still get to witness new life being brought into this world on a regular basis. This has served as a great reminder that while it feels as though the world has stopped turning, new stories are being written every day.
The best way I know of coping with my fear is to deal with it head-on. I did this by evaluating the definition of fear, which is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous.” What that really means is that fear is caused by my thoughts. Once I was able to recognize that, I felt in control again because I control the thoughts that I have.
In order for us to continue to walk into our hospitals every day, we must actively work on dissolving fear, at least a portion of it. Here are a few ideas to find some moments of peace in pandemonium.
1. Identify the thought that is creating your fear at that moment. My recurrent thought is that I am going to die, and my kids will grow up without a mother. If possible, do some journaling to help you find the thoughts you have as they may not be obvious at first.
2. Remind yourself that you don’t actually know what’s going to happen in the future. Therefore, thinking of an alternative (less devastating) future that is just as likely is advantageous. One of the thoughts that I am using when I am scared is, “I can’t control when/how I die, but I am in control of how I live my life today.”
3. Speak to yourself calmly and with compassion. Allow yourself to have moments of fear, and don’t judge yourself for that. If you have faith, rely on it during the tough times.
4. Do something to create positive emotions. Talk with your partner or a close friend, cuddle with your kids or pet, exercise if it makes you feel good, get some fresh air, have a private dance party, listen to an uplifting or funny podcast.
5. Limit news and social media. Your brain wants you to indulge in the scary statistics and awful stories of those who have died. Don’t do this to yourself. Get the facts that you feel that you need and then shut it off.
Few physicians feel properly prepared to face the fear caused by this pandemic. I certainly did not. However, we continue to show up every day for our colleagues and our patients. We continue to focus on our jobs and the things that we can do to help. Let’s not forget to find moments throughout the day to recognize that we are fearful and for good reason. Face the fear and then keep going, just as we have always done.
Kristin Yates is an obstetrics-gynecology physician.
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