Amy Irvine – My Journey in Self-care
Throughout this SSC, I have been mentally stimulated and challenged in ways that I have not been accustomed to with other modules in medical school. This has served as a pleasant change from the scientific nature of clinical based modules and I can honestly say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the module and the thought-provoking concepts that have been discussed. I initially ranked this SSC moderately high out of a combination of curiosity, the yoga component and the reasonable workload. On further thought this might have also been due to my instinctive nature to assign my mental and emotional health a high priority. This has been the case for many years as I have closely observed the detrimental effects that not looking after psychological health has had on members of my family.
During the initial introductory session we were asked to write down what self-care means to us and measures we currently take to self-care. I found the concept of self-care hard to articulate as it encompasses many different areas and our teaching until present had not encouraged any thought on it. At the beginning of this module, my concept of self-care consisted of a state of mental and physical well-being including emotional stability and awareness. The end point of successful self-awareness would be calmness in your soul and peacefulness in your heart with the ability to rise to and deal with challenges. Measures I previously took to self-care were exercise, formation and maintenance of good relationships with friends and family and what I considered to be a relatively healthy diet. I also try to learn something from every experience; both good and bad, and use this to help in the future. I identified areas that I needed to improve my self-care; a tendency to undereat when stressed and to dwell on past issues. Consequently, the main elements I wanted to get out of participation in this module were to learn simple techniques to improve my self-care and to identify and improve areas in which I lack self-care.
As mentioned previously, I would have described my diet as moderately healthy and I have been making small changes to improve it since moving away from home 3 years ago. I buy lots of fresh vegetables each week and choose lean meats such as turkey to form the basis of most meals. I do not buy crisps or confectionary and consumption of carbohydrates is limited to brown rice/pasta/bread. However for self-experimentation I chose to give up bread and rice completely at the start of week 2 after my colleagues delivered a presentation on the detrimental effect gluten has on your body. Dr Minford also highlighted the possible relationship between gluten and migraines and so (as a migraine sufferer) I thought this was worth the effort to observe any beneficial result. I struggled with this dietary change more than I had anticipated and after discussion in class I realized that although my intake of these foods was low and I felt no cravings as such, the momentum of my lifestyle was what proved hard to overcome. I had to adjust components of the meals I was so used to making and replace the rice/bread with a substitute. The observations I noted within my body started almost immediately with respect to how I felt after a meal. I had subconsciously normalized feeling ‘’sleepy’’ after dinner, and now I certainly noticed a lack of that sleepy feeling. Now, 10 days on, that has developed into an energy and as a consequence I am more productive after I eat dinner.
Having previously attended a yoga class, I was somewhat familiar with the basic movements and principles but nothing more. I was looking forward to our first yoga class and was intrigued to see if there would be any difference from being from a self-care perspective. Initially, I found it hard to relax as I am usually quite rushed in the morning and my mind is busy planning the day ahead but once I had achieved a sense of calm I was able to maintain it quite well. On moving my arms up and down gently I was shocked at how heavy they felt and it startled me to think how little I notice the weight of my arms throughout the day. Moving on from attempting to be at one with our bodies, I thoroughly enjoyed the sequence of movements and was able to remember it easily and so focus my mind on the fluidity of the actions and the stretch in my body. After each set I felt my muscles loosen up and was more comfortable moving between the positions. After the exercise, I had difficulty relaxing and was easily distracted by the sound of someone snoring. The next yoga session one week later had a larger focus on conscious presence, gentle breath meditation and body scanning. I knew I was much more unsettled from the offset and consequently found it very difficult to relax and concentrate on becoming at one with my body. At the next session I prepared by going to bed early and trying to remain gentle and not rush throughout the morning. I felt this hugely benefited as I fell into relaxation quicker than before and was able to maintain it for most of the session. Overall, I really enjoyed these yoga classes with the emphasis put on gentle movements and would consider taking another yoga course in the future.
The culture of medicine:
This module prompted me to think a lot about the working environment that I am beginning to be exposed to. My initial desire to study medicine was fuelled by my interest in science, love of interacting with people and aspirations to succeed. I never doubted my suitability for this career or gave thought to the impact it may have on me. After discussing in class the nature of the culture of both medical school and the career, it highlighted a few interesting points for me. Medicine is demanding, stressful, unforgiving and based on an altruistic manner. The proportion of doctors who suffer from substance abuse, alcoholism and have attempted suicide is much higher than the general population and other professions. I had not realized the advice coming directly from the GMC states that ‘Good doctors make the care of their patients their first concern’ – without mentioning ways to handle the effect this will certainly have on a persons self-care. This conflicting advice shocked me, how can doctors give a true quality of care without first having that care for themselves? The importance of self-care really hit home for me here. We will soon be entwined in a very toxic system and although there is some movement to change it, it will take time and the change must being with the people. At this stage in my life, exposure to toxic environments has been minimal but it is easy to see how quickly things escalate and I feel that I have learnt some very valuable lessons from taking this module.
The main learning point I took away from this module with regard to emotions was the harmful effect absorbing or reacting to other people’s emotional states and also the need to express our true thoughts and emotions. The exercise we did on empathy was interesting as it somewhat contradicted our previous teaching in medical school. As students we are told to empathize with patients, to put ourselves in their shoes in order to better understand the situation and comfort the patients. However, when we confronted our peer’s sad stories by just listening and being our loving selves they responded by saying that they felt comforted and listened to more so than when we were empathetic. Over the past week I have been applying this to conversations I have had with friends, and although they haven’t commented on my response, I feel the conversations have taken a positive direction. Another learning curve taken over the past few weeks was the realization that I can be fully in control of my emotions and do not have to let others actions dictate how I feel and react. Previously, when asked why I was angry, I would blame a person’s actions, or a particular situation. Now I am in the process of implementing the attitude that I alone am responsible for my emotions and I can control them (not without effort).
Overall, I found this self-care module to be exceptionally interesting as it challenged me to think outside of the conventional box on a whole variety of topics. It raised questions for me that perhaps touched on a nerve and gave me the opportunity to evaluate these in terms of my own self -care. Above all, it allowed me to see the importance of dedicating time and effort to taking care of my physical, mental and spiritual health as the cost of not doing so is too great to ignore.