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Coping with COVID Stress - Quick Tips from AAFP

Family physicians Lalita Abhyankar, MD, and Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, recently joined Ada Stewart, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), for a virtual town hall( about stress and trauma related to COVID-19. The town hall was titled “Your Feelings Are Real: Navigating Grief, Anger, Fear, Guilt, and Moral Injury.”

Jones shared his own experience working through depression and anxiety during medical training, an experience he chronicled in a memoir(, and shared how the past year has worsened his mental health.

Abhyankar, who works at a federally qualified health center in Brooklyn, talked about suffering “secondary grief” when the pandemic hammered New York City last spring. She heard story after story from patients who lost loved ones, including one whose husband died suddenly.

“Going through that interaction, which I wrote about in the (AAFP) new physician blog, kind of broke me,” Abhyankar said.

Tips for managing stress

Town hall participants shared some advice for physicians dealing with the stress and trauma of the pandemic:

  • Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re struggling. The culture of medicine has not traditionally accounted for mental health properly, but that needs to change•
  • Watch for signs of burnout, such as getting angry or frustrated with patients easily. These are red flags that you’re not taking care of your own emotional state.
  • Give yourself time and space for grief. Take sick time if necessary.
  • Be open with others about your feelings if you’re able, but don’t feel that you need to retraumatize yourself. Give yourself a break from talking or reading about the events that are stressing you. Set emotional boundaries.
  • Ask your colleagues how they’re doing, and give them your full attention if they want to talk about their own struggles. If you share those struggles, let them know.
  • Focus on what you can control, even if it seems small compared to the problems in the world.
  • Participate in funerals and memorials, even if they’re virtual.
  • Don’t be afraid to consult a psychiatrist, therapist, or grief counselor. Doctors often fear that receiving a mental health diagnosis will affect their professional license, but unaddressed mental health problems are more likely to cause licensing issues.

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