Emotionally Intelligent Physicians

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Emotional intelligence, the ability to be cognizant of your emotions and to be in control of how you express them, is a critical skill for those in positions of leadership and for the maintenance of healthy interpersonal relationships. It is an incredibly important skill for physicians— both personally and professionally.

Our work environment is high-pressure, ever-shifting and— at times— draining. I try to be mindful that, as an Emergency Physician, I may be seeing patients, their family, and their friends as they encounter the worst day of their lives. 

Here are a few things I do to ground myself:

Check in with yourself. Intermittently take a quick inventory of your day. How are you feeling? What makes you feel proud? What makes you feel anxious? Throughout your shift, seek out the positive. What has gone well? Who responded quickly or professionally? At times, I may only be able to celebrate that, at this particularly moment, I am only wearing my own bodily secretions. Take the wins where you can. ;)

This practice increases self-awareness and reminds us of small, positive moments we have throughout the day. Our brain is engineered to focus on negative moments to protect us from danger and ensure our survival. Unfortunately, that means we tend to emphasize the negative and minimize positive interactions we experience. The negative shouts and the positive whispers. Seek out those positive moments, reinforce the affirmative, and temper the negative.  Those moments of gratitude are there when we break through our negativity bias.

Take note of your trigger points.  Stress, especially in our high-pressure and high-stakes work environment, unleashes the “lizard brain / amygdala response” of freeze, flee, or flight. When you know your stressors and practice your response, you’ll be better able to navigate the instinctual responses to your triggers.

Walk in your patients’ shoes. As physicians, we become accustomed to the inner-workings of the hospital. It can be difficult to remember that, for many people, hospital visits can cause anxiety. Occasionally reminding yourself of their angst, and empathetically considering what your patient and their family may be going through can improve your interactions.

Take care with your words. The words we choose are powerful— especially with patients who may feel frightened or uncertain. Precision and empathy are vital for productive doctor-patient interactions.

 Take stock. After interactions that have been less than ideal, ask yourself a few questions. How could that have gone better? What might I have done differently? Don’t be afraid to get input from your colleagues, as well. 

Cultivating emotional intelligence takes time.

Developing emotional intelligence is not just about our patients. It is about us and our own wellbeing. Self-awareness, finding meaning, practicing gratitude, and personal development can help in developing our own resilience skills. Proactively recognizing our own triggers, defense mechanisms, and instinctual responses are key facets in honing our resilience skills. Combating cynicism requires tuning into the hopes, fears, and feelings of our colleagues, patients, and ourselves. We can honor and celebrate our own humanity and that of the people we care for.

Tracy Sanson