The jokey question about when to stop dancing with the bear is, in an important sense, the wrong question to be asking now. It represents a surrender to fate, misleading people into thinking that little can be done until COVID-19 departs the scene.
COVID-19 is not a black hole, pulling you into survival mode as you scramble to maintain purchase on the edge of an existential abyss. Psychologist coach Lani Peterson says that when people are immersed in a crisis, they can become mesmerized by whatever “bear” they’re facing.
COVID-19 is not a black hole, pulling you into survival mode as you scramble to maintain purchase on the edge of an existential abyss. Psychologist and narrative coach Lani Peterson says that when people are immersed in a crisis, they can become mesmerized by whatever “bear” they’re facing. In so doing, they cede the initiative for making sense of what’s happening in the moment, to the crisis itself.
The facts in a crisis are one thing—and often they may be tentative or appear to be contradictory as events unfold—but as for what you make of the facts, how you feel about the situation, and what you do as a result, these are all choices you can make. You can’t ignore the bear, but you can reframe your dance.
“Right now, stories are being rewritten all around us, nationally, individually, and we all get a chance to do some of the rewriting,” says Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership who studies the psychology of morality. “This is a time to reflect and choose a better story.” Choosing or changing your story is taking a positive action. When you do so, you change yourself. You become the story’s author with yourself in the lead role. When you refuse to allow the dance of external events to move the storyline forward, you remain in charge. Of you.
Phyllis Napfel the shock trauma nurse, when faced with making fateful decisions, chooses a road less traveled. “Whenever I choose to do something that is not like me, I listen for spiritual guidance, and then I do it. It’s not comfortable, but I realize it was meant to be, and is not supposed to make me happy. This becomes my calling.”
Mike Piet, introduced earlier, was an independent volunteer reporting from the front lines in a hospital serving the underserved. He’s seen things that cannot be unseen.
Being at your best when everything is at its worst.
In 1998, when U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa, Piet saw rescue teams from the U.S. rush to help. He was awakened to what he now accepts as his purpose: being at your best when everything is at its worst. COVID-19 has added a new chapter to Piet’s narrative. “Coming in to help has always resonated with me,” he says, “It’s who I am.” With danger all about, Piet survives stress and potential trauma in large part because his personal narrative is meaningful. He is not dancing on the bear’s terms. Piet knows his own story, and he’s sticking with it. “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
Dr. Siva Padmanabhan Sivakumar is a Pulmonary Critical care physician in New Hampshire who has experienced burnout even before the COVID-19 crisis. He continues to bounce back from stress, partly through self-care disciplines such as breathing, meditation, exercise, focusing on his hobbies, and rest. Recently he found himself overwhelmed. He was at the end of his shift after an exhausting three-day stretch. He could do no more than what was absolutely necessary: “tucking in” new patients for the next shift.
Dr. Sivakumar restores when he’s home and rested. Then he may reflect on why he’s a doctor—helping people when no one else can. I talked with Dr. Sivakumar on his first day back from time off. He sounded like a man who knew his limits as well as he knew his calling, and he was happy to be back at work.
When you find meaning in your specific and personal story, you perform self-care. You create heroes out of patients. You become a hero in your own right.
Victor Frankl, survivor of Auschwitz, wrote that, “Again and again we have seen that an appeal to life, to survive the most unfavorable conditions, can be made only when survival appears to have meaning.” For everyone, according to Frankl, meaning “must be specific and personal, a meaning which can be realized by one person alone.”
When you, a healthcare worker, find meaning in your specific and personal story, you perform self-care. You create heroes out of patients. You become a hero in your own right.
This article is the third and final in the series that tells the story of how physicians can develop coping skills to manage extreme burnout. Read the rest of the series here