What I learned from Navy SEALs about resilience

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In 2017, the National Academy of Medicine recognized the urgent need to address burnout, wellness, and resilience in physicians. A consortium was subsequently put together comprising many cosponsoring organizations, including the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), and the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). One of many outputs of this consortium was a discussion paper, “A Journey to Construct an All-Encompassing Conceptual Model of Factors Affecting Clinician Well-Being and Resilience.”

Dr. Brian Nussenbaum, executive director of the American Board of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. He lives in Houston.

Doug Brunk/MDedge News

Dr. Brian Nussenbaum

The authors conceptually divided wellness and resilience drivers into external and individual factors. It turns out that a large portion of clinician well-being and resilience is related to individual factors that include personal factors, skills, and abilities. Taking personal responsibility and ownership of developing these individual factors is important, but many do not know where to begin.

My journey in this area began 5 years ago. This was a time when organizational resources were sparse and there was little local or national attention to addressing physician wellness. My life was horribly out of balance. While this should have been obvious, the “hit-on-the-head” moment was weighing myself one day and realizing that I was 30 pounds overweight. This was the ultimate sign to me that there was a problem because throughout my entire life, I was always very athletic, even during residency and fellowship training. I was using food as a reward system for several years which, in combination with a dramatic decrease in physical activity due to prioritizing everything related to work, led to this problem. A slowing metabolism that we all face as we age certainly accentuated it.

I was taking care of everybody else, but not myself. Many family members, friends, and even patients told me this over the years, which I conveniently ignored. For several years, my patients were asking me, “How are you doing?” at the end of their office visits. As a surgeon with a busy cancer practice, this should have been a signal for me – my cancer patients asking me how I am doing!

I started to think more about why this was happening. I realized that I was a victim of my own passions. In terms of my clinical practice, I cherished and absolutely loved every aspect of my practice and taking care of patients. I loved educating our next generation and thrived on conducting research, presenting at meetings, and publishing papers. And as I was accumulating more administrative roles and responsibilities at the department, hospital, and medical school levels, I realized I had a growing passion for administrative work. I found that the administrative work was uniquely challenging and allowed me to meaningfully serve others in a very special way.

In all of these areas for which I had a deep passion, I was committed to nothing short of excellence in everything I did. That is what I expected of myself. Self-compassion was almost absent. In addition, I have a people-pleasing personality and find it difficult to say no to people. As I have come to realize, this characteristic can be self-destructive.

I began to recognize that I fell into an acceptance (and almost expectation) that every 6-8 months I’d experience an episode of burnout that lasted 3-4 days. My burnout trigger was feeling a sense of helplessness. Everything seemed to come down all at once, and I felt helpless to dig out of it.

I realized I wanted to change, but I had no idea what resources were available or how to go about making a change. One day, I was talking to a colleague about these issues, and he asked, “Have you read the book, ‘Lone Survivor?’ ” I hadn’t heard of it, but I picked it up and started reading. Looking back, this was one of the most important decisions I made in my effort to help myself. “Lone Survivor tells the the story of Marcus Luttrell, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who received the Navy Cross for his actions facing Taliban fighters during Operation Red Wings.

When I finished reading this book, I realized that this was a remarkable story of resilience. The entirety of his story really connected with me. I then began to think there might be something I could learn from the Navy SEAL community that I could apply to my own civilian life.

Candidates who enter training for Navy SEALs are physically fit to succeed, but only approximately 20% make it through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S). Many drop out on request, largely because they don’t have the mental toughness and emotional resilience to tolerate intense stress continuously over a prolonged period of time. The ones who succeed have a deep meaning to their “Why” to become a SEAL.

I then learned about a retired Navy SEAL Commander, Mark Devine, who had a program intended to train civilians in physical fitness, mental toughness, emotional resilience, intuitional awareness, and spiritual consciousness in a manner similar to that of preparing prospective candidates for BUD/S training. The website stated that the defining attribute for enrollees was “a burning desire to better oneself.” I connected with that. After resolving my self-doubts and uncomfortable feelings about doing this, I signed up for the 3-day Fundamentals immersion program.

My 3 days with Coach Divine and his team were truly transformative. This was definitely not a “Navy SEAL Fantasy Camp,” and perhaps were the 3 most difficult days of my life in many regards.

When I got back from this program, I had a framework and toolbox for developing resilience to avoid burnout and improve my personal wellness. I immediately changed several things in my life, in an enduring way for the past 5 years. I started to train regularly. While I could not find a predictable time to do this during the week, I prioritized training during weekends. I improved my nutrition, stopped using food as a reward system, and started getting more sleep. Within 6 months after completing the program, I dropped the 30 pounds by being disciplined, not motivated, to make these changes. I also developed a morning ritual upon awakening. This consists of drinking a glass of water, doing box-breathing exercises, positive self-talk, thinking through my day, prioritizing what needs to be done, doing an ethos check-in to make sure that the priorities of the day correlate with my “Why,” engaging in further positive self-talk, and then engaging in positive visualization. I think this mindfulness activity has been critically important.

With the enduring changes I made, my regular schedule of burnout episodes every 6-8 months stopped, despite some very stressful events in my life. Go figure. My productivity was not affected, and my happiness was certainly improved. I had a definite sense that the changes I made were real and effective. One day a few years later while rounding with an intern, one of my patients said to the resident, “I remember Dr. Nussenbaum when he was fat.” The intern looked at me with a puzzled expression.

Based on my own journey, what advice can I give you to improve your own personal wellness and resilience? Most importantly, know your “Why” and your “3 Ps” (passion, purpose, and principles in life). What’s your personal ethos? Make sure that the job you do and the activities you perform tie into your ethos as much and as often as possible. Engage in mindfulness activities. There are many possibilities. For me, the mindfulness activity is my morning ritual. Talking about failures with trusted friends and colleagues rather than hiding them can also increase your resilience.

Developing and maintaining resilience is still an evolving and ongoing process for me. I consider this a lifelong learning process, rather than a one-time deal. Most difficult has been becoming disciplined and patient to learn new things and incorporate them into my life, and along the way becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. And taking the necessary time to define a personal ethos, which took much longer than I thought it would.

I’ve continued to learn from several resources available from the Harvard Business Review, and from reading several widely available books. I have taken an academic approach to supplement what I learned from Coach Divine and his team, which is not surprising to those that know me well. Societies also now have many resources, such as The American Medical Association’s Burnout Tip-of-the Week, as one example.

One of the four guiding principles from the recent article, “Charter on Physician Well-Being,” states that physician well-being is a shared responsibility. It’s shared among the organizations we work in, society and its regulatory agencies, and individuals. It’s important to remind ourselves that taking individual responsibility for your wellness and developing resilience will still be a key component even as resources from our organizations and society continue to expand and become more available. Improving physician well-being needs to be a team sport.

Dr. Brian Nussenbaum is executive director of the American Board of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. He lives in Houston. These remarks were adapted from a presentation that Dr. Nussenbaum gave at the Triological Society’s Combined Sections Meeting in Coronado, Calif., which was jointly sponsored by the Triological Society and the American College of Surgeons.

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