Updated: Mar 7, 2022
My earliest coaching experiences were with other physicians and practitioners on the frontlines of care, in the US, Canada, Australia, and Hong Kong. My coach training program had us offer free coaching in order to hone our skills, and so of course I reached out to my friends and colleagues. I was grateful to those who responded with their time, courage and vulnerability.
The year 2020 will be memorable to us all, and to future generations for so many reasons. In Hong Kong, we were still reeling from the protests and violence in the streets that marked 2019 with an eerie surrealism that transcended the emotional intensity of the Occupy Central movement here in 2014. The global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns were beyond anything we could have imagined.
In those early pandemic days, I remember watching the news and statistics with a kind of horrific fascination - the numbers of cases and deaths grew exponentially: by country, by state. Hearing from and reading about colleagues who were having to step up and out of their professional comfort zone. The world seemed at once incredibly tiny but also unfathomably immense.
Whether we were on the frontlines or at home, whether our families fell victim to COVID-19 or whether we felt stuck or safe in our homes, what we experienced was a kind of collective trauma. We lived through painful and scary times. For some of us there remains residual anxiety verging on paranoia. For others, there may be ongoing frustration. And for all, a sense of loss, grief and longing for what was.
The thing is, it’s not over yet. We thought vaccines would help. We want so badly for things to “go back to normal.” Healthcare staff in the trenches are still fighting: alpha, delta, omicron. There is a collective weariness that is worsened by the thinning ranks as care providers exit the frontlines.
Burnout happens when we are emotionally exhausted from caring too much for too long. It’s when we are depleted of compassion or empathy - we no longer feel a sense of connection. And when it feels like nothing that we do makes a difference anyway - when there’s a sense of futility.
The first step to healing our collective trauma is to stop and acknowledge that it’s even happening. When we are living through historic upheavals, our bodies and minds will go into a kind of survival mode to protect us. It’s not easy to hit pause, because it takes courage to stop and reflect on our experience and our emotions.
Our pituitary and adrenal glands have been working overtime to keep us alert to potential threats and ready to fight/flee/hide/freeze. Our minds are used to jumping to the next thing with a kind of frenetic restlessness and urgency that keeps us running on the hamster wheel. Even when we aren’t actually escaping, that sense of running brings distraction and a sense of familiarity that masquerades as safety.
We generate hope when we engage our minds to imagine, to create and to be curious
So while survival mode is good for short term management of danger and stress, it cannot be sustained for weeks, months, years on end, without serious damage to our health.
So what do you notice when you hit pause? How do you feel? As you look back at the last year, the last two years? What have you lost? What have you gained? What surprised you most? Where are you still resisting the reality of what is?
As we look ahead to 2022, the only certainty is that we will face even more uncertainty. And if that is the new normal, what does that mean for us and how do we choose to be?
My wish for you is to reflect on this past year with kindness and generosity for yourself. What are you proud of? What did you learn about yourself? And as you look ahead to 2022, what more do you want to become?
In three decades of medical practice, I know of no more powerful medicine than hope. And we generate that hope for ourselves when we engage our minds to imagine, to be curious and to create.