Cultivating a Sense of Gratitude – Learning to better appreciates of gifts of a healthcare provider

Posted on Dec 2, 2020 in Announcements, Wellness Committee | 0 comments

2020 has been an incredibly tough year: COVID-19 rages across the country completely altering the way we work and live and putting our lives in danger, then there has been all the political and social unrest.  Yet as we approach the time of year when we traditionally seek a sense of gratitude, there is still much to be thankful for.  Those of us with ABSMC have been able to get paid, get out of the house and, I hope, have health in our families.

While our work is meaningful, finding the moment to moment, patient to patient sense of gratitude is not always so easy.  When I talk about healthcare and gratitude, I often hear, “Yeah, I wish my patients were more grateful for all I do.”  While I understand this sentiment, it misses something fundamental in the provider patient relationship. To develop a deep sense of gratitude as a provider, it helps to understand the cycle of gratitude.

Robert Emmons, a leading researcher of gratitude, defines gratitude as a recognition of the gifts that others give us, a recognition of the source of those gifts, and an appreciation of those gifts.  The good feelings that follows lead grateful people to “pay it forward”.  So, gratitude is not a simple emotion but a virtuous cycle that perpetuates giving and goodwill. If we consciously think about this cycle as we move through our day, we can foster a sense of gratitude that can transform our experience of work.

The tricky and counterintuitive part of the cycle for providers is recognizing the gifts.  Who is doing the giving? And what exactly are the gifts? Aren’t we the ones prescribing meds, offering advice and performing procedures?  We are the ones doing things in the encounters so it is easy to see why we can fail to see that the real story in healthcare is the patient’s life and thus we miss the gift that is the beauty of the lives before us.  Witnessing firsthand the struggles with serious illness is as rich and as humanizing an experience as life offers; being able to heal in this setting transforms this rich experience into a profound privilege and a gift.  These gifts can be missed if we don’t take the time to recognize them.

To best appreciate the gifts, we need to receive them properly and that means calming the stress-driven sympathetic nervous system and activating the connecting parasympathetic nervous system. We can do this with just a deep breath or two.  When calm, the Vagus nerve can be activated by receiving the gift and we get the visceral, embodied, good “feeling” that serves to physiologically reinforce the behavior. We experience this as warmth and expansiveness that facilitates our desire to reach out and give ourselves in turn.

We all know the beauty of this cycle of gratitude – leaving a patient’s room with an up-lifting sensation, feeling eager to open our heart to help our next patient. The goodwill and joyful feelings are especially useful when we have those challenging encounters that can pull us down the path of anger and frustration. This is why gratitude might be our most powerful antidote against burnout. With gas in our tank and a desire to pay it forward, we can better handle tough patches we inevitably face. Not only that, but by fostering the ability to see the beauty in our patient’s struggles, we can more easily detach from the interpersonal challenges that arise in some clinical encounters.

Gratitude is at the heart of all of the world’s great religions; I think we have all heard that “gratitude is good for us.”  In fact, there is a rich field of research with hundreds of studies that demonstrates this intuitive fact to be scientifically valid.  We can all call upon a sense of gratitude when we think about our personal lives and feel the sense of connection and humility it inspires.  If we learn to see each patient encounter as a profound privilege and a gift, our work can be transformed into a spiritual practice abounding with gratitude and purpose.

2020 has taught us much: the need for community, the importance of working together as a society and it has reaffirmed the importance of our work.  If we take the lessons from 2020 and use this Thanksgiving time to learn how to foster a sense of gratitude at work, we will indeed have much to be thankful for. Our lives and those of people we care for will be richer for it.

Lief Hass, MD
Wellness Chair – Summit Campus

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