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How to Manage Stress Like an ER Doctor

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This blog was inspired by Darria Long’s presentation for Ted Health. Check it out here.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more stress-inducing environment than a trauma center. Yet, ER doctors seem to take on every challenge with a calm and focused approach. How do they do it? 

Let’s take a page out of their book and learn how to manage daily stressors with the focus of an ER doctor. 

5 Tips to Manage Stress Like an ER Doctor

1. Triage your to-do list.

When every little thing feels like a high-priority task, stress skyrockets. Unfortunately, responding to this “noise” stalls your progress on the tasks that are important—and it can double your stress hormones. Yikes!

ER doctors have a solution. With a full trauma ward awaiting their help, they assign patients different degrees of urgency to decide the order of treatment to serve everyone best. Having a predetermined order keeps them focused on the most critical cases and reduces stress.

You can do the same. Not everything on your to-do list has the same level of urgency. Set up a ranking system to label high-priority (red), moderate-priority (yellow), and low-priority to-dos (green). Instead of treating every task as if it’s critical, triage! Address the genuine red tasks first to stay on top of what’s most important to you, then move on to less essential to-dos.

You can learn more helpful tips on this subject from Joy Organics Co-founder Todd Smith in his article "The Importance of Keeping a To Do List."

2. Take something off your list.

Sometimes, we have to let something go to make progress. In the ER, it’s those patients where little more can be done, and doctors must move on so they help others.

For the rest of us, it’s those commitments that we squeeze into our packed schedules, even though we know we don’t have the time or energy. Removing these excess to-dos isn’t always easy—but the time, energy and sanity you’ll save yourself are worth it.

3. Reduce daily decisions with automation or delegate.

Making too many decisions every day is a recipe for stress and brain fog. ER doctors can’t afford to have cloudy thinking due to decision fatigue when lives are on the line. To reserve their brain power for the most important decisions, they automate or delegate the simpler things.

Design your life to reduce your daily decisions and make each day easier. For instance, meal plan and prep once per week, rather than choosing your meals every day. Or schedule automatic bill payments or recurring orders for items you use regularly. 

A little time spent designing your life for fewer decisions will pay off with more energy, better focus, and less stress. 

4. Talk it out.

Emergency doctors at Harborview Medical Center (one of the busiest trauma centers in the United States) reduce their stress by meeting for regular debriefings. Together, they reflect on particularly challenging or stressful cases to release pent-up tension, find ways to improve care, and support each other.

You don’t have to be an ER doctor to benefit from debriefing with others. When you feel stress taking over, take a walk with a friend or call a family member and talk it out. Not only does this let off steam, but it also helps you process your emotions in a more productive way than letting thoughts stew in your mind.

5. Use compassion to stop stress.

No matter how much you triage, automate, and debrief, you will still encounter stress from time to time—it’s just part of being human! Thankfully, you can use that same humanity to keep from letting that stress get out of hand. 

When faced with a particularly challenging circumstance, try ER doctor Darria Long Gillespie’s advice and “get out of your head” with compassion. When lives are at stake and she feels nervous, she breaks through the catastrophizing thoughts by focusing on someone else.

According to Dr. Gillespie, “Research shows that when you prime your brain with what is, essentially, compassion, we disrupt that tunnel vision and internal monologue. You widen your perception, so your brain can actually take in broader information, so you see more possibilities and can make better decisions.”

Bonus Tip: Don’t Skip Self-Care 

Want to greet every challenge feeling as cool, calm and collected as an ER doctor? You can’t skip self-care. 

For Dr. Preston Wendell of Summerville Medical Center, that means regular 5-minute breaks and breathing exercises. For Dr. Gillespie, running keeps her feeling her best. 

Make these and other self-care routines (like stress-relieving baths or a daily dose of calming CBD tinctures) red-level to-dos to keep your stress levels low.

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