Going Viral

Words matter. They can actually be more impactful than actions. Words incite wars, peace treaty agreements, long-term commitments and social contracts. Without communication we are impotent…powerless. A word that has been invoked a myriad of times online, across multiple platforms, is the word “VIRAL.” How many times have you heard someone describe a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube post as going viral? We wait with baited breath for our communication to multiply exponentially, traveling the globe. We covet recognition, fame and fortune. Now that we are experiencing the very REAL impact Covid-19 is having, we understand the concept of what going viral REALLY means. 
Honestly, I am reticent to ever use that word again to describe the propagation of an idea or content. We are experiencing collectively the speed with which a deadly virus can reproduce, drift and shift.Perhaps taken in this context, the naysayers and disbelievers will pause. The “overnight” sensations that have been made through a viral post are commonplace. We have seen the effects of these posts that inspire, educate, provoke or destroy. This contagion is no different. Its destructive force is felt physically, financially, psychologically, collectively. This virus is real. Its destructive impact is real. Please, take it seriously. Protect those you love. Advocate for the physician, nurse or health professional who is courageously fighting on your behalf. The speed at which this virus travels is mind blowing.
Right now we are immersed in the language of this pandemic. Let’s use the viral energy for good. Let’s infect our world with acts of viral courage, viral compassion, viral kindness, viral empathy. If we do, our healing and recovery is assured.

Severity vs Volume: Which will Win?

Ever notice how hard it is to find the right words sometimes? We try to communicate a thought or feeling and the person on the receiving end misses the point or misinterprets what we are trying to say. It is highly frustrating for everyone involved. I notice this happening a lot right now. Over and over again I read news stories about how lethal or non-lethal Covid-19 is. We argue about it and shout at each other brandishing actuarial tables. But the number of casualties isn’t the point. It isn’t a particularly deadly virus, it IS a particularly contagious one.

Remember those recent Christmas shopping tales where a large volume of people try to push into a department store? Everyone is intent on purchasing that perfect holiday gift. They are focused, they are clear headed, they are on a mission. Unfortunately, putting a large number of intensely focused people in a commercial space creates chaos and leads to violence. Angry words are exchanged, tempers escalate and violence ensues. We watch these events unfold, feeling helpless, overwhelmed and embarrassed.

The current crisis is not all that different. It isn’t about the number of fatalities the Covid-19 virus will cause, it’s about the sheer volume of people who could become infected all at once and need help. And while this large number of people flood our medical establishments desperate for interventions, the folks in line already waiting for an appendectomy, diverticulitis surgery or emergency surgery post car accident…, wait. They wait and they wait and they wait. Our local hospitals deluged by hundreds or thousands of folks needing everything from a prescription, to an oxygen mask, to an inhaler, to an antibiotic are overwhelmed by the colossal number of sick people. Infected folks are pushed to the front of the line. It makes sense, right? But in this scenario, all other health issues become secondary. In this situation an appendix unnecessarily bursts, a diverticulitis infection turns septic and a simple un-obtained trauma surgery leads to death. In this profile there isn’t a bed or an operating room to be had. It isn’t just the Covid-19 infections putting us at risk, but every common illness or malady has the potential of becoming lethal.

It’s NOT about how deadly Covid-19 is, it’s about how very contagious it is. And when you have a highly contagious pathogen that infects a large volume of people all at once, our already taxed medical system won’t be able to meet the tsunami of folks inundating the system looking for help. A tsunami kills not merely because it is comprised of water. A tsunami kills because of its enormous volume.

I don’t have any statistics to fling in your direction. I don’t need or want to argue with anyone. All I want is for you to have access to medical interventions when you need them most. I want the infection rate slowed, giving everyone a fighting chance.

Re-Traumatization vs Stress

Everyone is feeling stressed right now. It is a normal response to the unexpected and demanding circumstances we are experiencing. But is the stress you are feeling just garden variety normal day to day stress or is it something more? Stress is felt in the body as tension and is experienced by the mind as worry. Once you release the tension and address your worry, you usually feel better. If what you are experiencing is more than just normal stress, you may be feeling hypervigilant, emotionally fragile, reactive. If this is the case, then you actually may be experiencing re-traumatization.

Old traumatic experiences revisited during a crisis destabilize us. When old traumas are triggered we find ourselves not only dealing with what is happening in the current moment, but old fears resurrected from the ancient past. This is a normal even predictable response. Distressing memories may return temporarily, but they need not stay. You can interrupt the PTSD cycle now, today, in this moment.

  1. Stay present with what is happening now. It is tempting to avoid or try to distract yourself. This is not a good strategy. Notice what is happening and stay in the “here and now.”
  2. Be self-protective. Stress-filled, dramatic events do the most damage when we fail to protect ourselves. Be honest with yourself about what you need to feel safe right now, in this moment. No future tripping. No living in the past. Right here, right now, what do you need?
  3. Avoid catastrophizing. Worst case scenarios are rarely helpful. Plans, structure and back-up plans are what empower us. If fear threatens to overwhelm, make a plan. Structure helps give us a sense of control.
  4. Choose empowering action. Be decisive and act on your decisions. Move your body. Don’t shut down. Physical outlets and empowering action are critical.

We are less impacted by traumatic events when we apply these strategies. The good news is that regardless of whether you are experiencing normal stress or feeling re-traumatized…the disruptors are the same!

How The Desperation Cycle Begins

Having worked with physicians over the last 20 years, I have come to recognize a familiar pattern. It is a pattern of trauma which begins in medical school, sometimes earlier. Unlike other high stress professions that acknowledge the risks, physician stress is mostly ignored. When it’s not, the physician is pathologized, made to feel as if they are the problem. The pathologizing starts early. Desperate to get into med school, then desperate to graduate, desperate to match into residency, desperate to specialize, get into a fellowship, a group practice. And so, what I call the desperation cycle begins.

Medical students are thrown into the rigors of study in much the same way military personnel are thrown into the boot camp experience. Most are told that medical school will be HARD. More than hard. To quote one instructor, “Med school will break many of you sitting here. You are not as bright as you think you are. In fact most of you are average, or less than average.” These students who have been the “brainiacs” in previous educational environments find themselves challenged and critiqued, told they are not up to snuff and better crank it up. Dealing with the impossible pressures totally re-frames their sense of self. The system of breaking down physician confidence has begun. 

The AVERAGE cost of medical training is 170k. Most students graduate owing far more. The financial commitment, delicately balanced on a fragile foundation of low self-esteem, becomes a constant destabilizing and threatening reality.

Once you manage to get through medical school with all its test taking, hazing and competition, you move on to the Residency experience. Attempting to “match.” “Attempting” because there aren’t enough residency positions to go around. In fact, there are 11,000 fewer residency positions than there are applicants. The competition is fierce and desperate. It is tragic that many contemplate suicide at this juncture, before they even qualify to practice medicine independently.

For those who do match and find themselves in the pressure cooker called, residency, they arrive exhausted, financially insolvent and with an eroded sense of self. This is where pimping, humiliation, training/mentoring and physical abuse happens. Interns are pitted against each other, required to work up to 36 hours, ignoring their basic needs. It is not uncommon to hear of residents falling asleep in the parking lot of the hospital in which they work, or at the wheel while driving home. Full blown psychotic breaks, seizures and medical errors often sabotage careers for even the most promising in their field. By the time residents complete their training, they are often too depleted to even entertain the idea of Fellowship beyond residency. Entering the workplace already entrenched in the Desperation Cycle, physicians prepare to….PRACTICE MEDICINE?

Trauma in Medicine

Trauma is a far more pervasive issue in medicine than anyone is talking about. We know physicians live highly-stressed lives, but we are reticent to talk about the trauma inherent in the field. Many are afraid to talk about living in secrecy with Post Traumatic Stress, because it can be a career killer if you acknowledge your suffering. Physicians joke about OCD, anxiety, burn-out, rarely admitting that they are REALLY struggling with PTSD. Time to tell the truth. There are strategies to heal.

Once you are ready to acknowledge your trauma history, what should you do?

  • Don’t keep it a secret.
  • Use centering and grounding practices. 
  • Slow down the trauma response.
  • Differentiate the physical versus the emotional.
  • Disrupt the trauma cycle with tangible interventions.

Post Traumatic Stress and Depression

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often coexists with depression. In fact, a third of returning veterans have depression that accompanies their PTSD. If you are struggling with profound sadness, isolation, irritability, sleep disruption, appetite changes, trouble concentrating and are tempted to self-medicate with substances, you may be experiencing PTSD co-existing with depression. Don’t accept the very first diagnosis you were given if it feels like something more complex is going on. The good news is that PTSD and depression (experienced as a result of trauma) respond very well to treatment. It is not hopeless. You are not weak or flawed. You deserve to feel good again.