How to Manage Stress, Instead of Avoiding it

Photo by tetmc/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by tetmc/iStock / Getty Images

How to Manage Stress, Instead of Avoiding It

Stress is one of the primary contributors to burnout among surgeons (and other working professionals, for that matter). Most people try their best to avoid stress in their everyday lives. We’re constantly told to “live a stress-free life” – but that type of thinking is actually detrimental. Stress is a part of everyone’s life. Avoiding stress will only exacerbate and compound the issue. We’d be much better off by managing the stress in our lives, rather than outright avoiding it. In this article, we’re going to offer some tips for managing (instead of avoiding) stress as it arises.

Practice Healthy Habits

Doctors and surgeons encounter extreme levels of stress in their daily lives. When you’re literally holding a patient’s life in your hands, it’s no surprise that stress levels can be high. With such massive levels of stress, many people will turn to unhealthy habits in order to deal with their stress levels. Some physicians smoke cigarettes, or drink heavily, or eat a lot of junk food. These vices offer short-term stress relief, but are unhealthy and detrimental in the long-run. Try to combat these bad habits by forming healthy habits that reduce stress, like exercise, meditation, and socialization.


A solid night’s sleep on a consistent basis is absolutely crucial to managing stress. We’ve all woken up after a poor night’s sleep and been irritable the entire day. Doctors often have to work long shifts at odd hours. That can lead to irregular and unhealthy sleep patterns. It’s amazing what a consistent sleep schedule can do to manage your stress levels. Do your best to create and stick to a sleep schedule by setting sleep goals for yourself.

Recognize & Address the Issue

Many surgeons bury their stress and go about their days as normal. When stress lurks below the surface, it’s bound to bubble up eventually and negatively impact your performance. It’s important to recognize stress and address it, rather than trying to avoid or bury it.

Got other tips SurgeonMasters should know about? Email them to us,

The Fastest Way to Create Change

Creating change in your life and career can feel like an impossible task.

If you’ve been unhappy or managing the status quo for a long time, you probably feel overwhelmed because many areas of your practice need attention. You may even feel a bit hopeless, like no matter what you do you won’t make a dent. Or you may just feel that you don't want to rock the boat, because your practice is tolerable.

Debt-Snowball Method

When you’re feeling this frustrated, one of the most effective ways to create change is to use the debt-snowball method, popularized by Dave Ramsey (Financial Author).

The debt-snowball method is a method of debt reduction that promotes paying off the debt with the smallest balance first, and then working your way up to the larger ones. You benefit psychologically from seeing results much sooner, and this keeps you motivated for the larger debts, and ultimately debt relief earlier.

To use this method to effect change in your life, begin by writing down everything that’s causing you frustration. Then order each of these items, beginning with the one that’s easiest to change and ending with the one that’s hardest to change.

A Few Examples

For example, the hardest thing to change might be a general dissatisfaction with life or the Affordable Care Act, while the easiest problem to fix might be a difficult commute or a few time saving steps in your EMR. In this case, you’d want to tackle the commute first and work your way up to the general dissatisfaction problem.

Your action item this week is to address one thing in your life that’s causing you frustration but isn’t too difficult to fix. I encourage you to stay accountable by posting the change you intend to make in the comment box below.

How To Prevent Surgeon Burnout

The challenge with surgeon burnout is that it is born out of the best of intentions. It happens because you are always striving to improve, do better work and be a better surgeon. You are pushing yourself to be as productive as possible, but you push so hard that you end up burning out.

Managing & Balance

Most doctors view burnout as a problem that requires a solution, but my friend Dike Drummond, The Happy MD, encourages you and I to view it as a dilemma that requires managing and balance.

A dilemma, by definition, is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two undesirable or mutually incompatible choices. In this case, it is productivity versus burnout.

The goal is to find a healthy balance between these two options, so you are solidly productive at work without pushing yourself so hard that you burn out. As everyone is different and has unique needs, it is ultimately up to you what this balance will look and feel like.

Creating New Habits

For me, it was an ongoing process of creating new habits. I started by implementing a diet and exercise routine. In my youth I was very physically active, but my practice and lifestyle got in the way of this for twenty years. Now I exercise three times a week and eat healthier. I have turned these daily choices into habits and they contribute to my ability to manage stress and enjoy a better life.

Now it’s your turn. What daily choices can you make to improve your overall well-being without sacrificing productivity?