By Dr. Raji Menon, MD
A little over 20 years ago, while working in the United Kingdom, I went through a period of abject dejection. My preceptor at the time described me as a “pull-yourself-together” kind of woman. The truth is that I did not realize that I was clinically depressed. My preceptor was very perceptive and called my family physician and asked him to see me. She told him that I was depressed. The physician gave me a questionnaire and a pamphlet about depression. I answered “yes” to every question in the questionnaire (according to the pamphlet, one “yes” was enough to diagnose depression)! Once I realized it, however, I did set out to pull myself together.
There were no resources that I could access, other than an offer for a prescription of antidepressants. I decided to try without them, at first. I had been waiting for a medical exam for immigration to Canada, and I thought, at the time, that any illness might be grounds for rejection (this was entirely my own assumption, of course). I felt I had to try and fix it myself.
Keep in mind that this was not necessarily an issue that was openly discussed with people at the time. We are only just now getting to a place where coming forward with a mental illness is encouraged or normalized.
I sought help from various self-help books and websites and spiritual resources. I moved continents, to be with my family, before I started to feel myself again. It took a long time to recover, though.
Many years later, seeing the level of stress in the health care field, I decided to become a life coach. The intent was to try and help deal with the stresses early on, and prevent a state of burnout, as much as possible. I did the coach training, while holding a very busy general surgery practice and also managing two young kids. These challenges were further compounded by the fact that I was a rural physician who was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I was very lucky to have the full support of my husband and the kids, while I took the classes. It was a very grueling course, with much reading, many assignments, a research paper and very lengthy practicums. However, I completed it much faster than I expected.
To complete this course, I had to not only be coached by my peers but also take the time to coach others, a difficult but rewarding experience. There were also many “laser coaching” sessions (15-minute sessions focused on specific issues) within each module and some serious coaching assessments, for the final exams. We also had to coach external clients (not students of the course — people found by word of mouth) and receive feedback from them as well. In the end, having completed my certification, I recognized the value of physician coaching in maintaining my own wellness. I knew I wanted to share this with others.
It’s important to note that coaching can be an important wellness tool, however it is not a replacement for clinical interventions when suffering from depression. Here are some of the ways in which coaching has helped me.
Learning to take responsibility for my life: This simply meant accepting where I was at and fully acknowledging that I did have the power to change things. It also meant accepting the fact that the only person I could change was myself. There was, of course, no assigning of blame for anything.
Being clear about what I want: The coaching process helped me attain clarity around my situation, my values and my priorities. The process involved a lot of “smart questions” that I had to answer, and in the process I gained many insights, which were very poignant.
Altering perspectives: When you look at things from different angles, you’ll be surprised at how things can look. I found that when you change the perspective, you see different meanings in events. It is up to us to choose that perspective that best helps our peace of mind and propels us toward inner development. This does not mean denying what is happening and what we feel about it.
Losing judgment: Judgment is not a bad thing in itself. We need judgment to make decisions in almost everything we do. However, each person has the right to form their own opinions and therefore their own ideas about how to approach a problem. I was never criticized for my approach to my problems, and I learned not to judge others’ way of doing things, or their beliefs. As a coach, it is my duty to try and help a client see a different perspective, but it is entirely their choice which perspective to accept.
Putting structures in place to achieve a goal: This was very important, and it is something I do with all my clients. In this context, the word "structure” is used to mean anything we do or use to help us follow our plan and to prevent us from sliding. For example, a person who wants to eat healthily would have a meal plan and make sure not to keep any unhealthy food in the house.
Being accountable: Simply put, when I told my coach I would do something, I tried to make sure I did it. This is not about my coach criticizing me for not following through; I still had to be accountable. I would have to explain why I failed (in a very safe, nonthreatening environment, of course) and alter the structures to make sure I did not fail again, if I really wanted to succeed.
Course correction: When things did not go the way I had planned, I received help in figuring out what went wrong and correcting my course. There is absolutely no point in having regrets or in giving up. I was taught that there are no failures in life — there is only feedback.
Learning to celebrate small victories: Every week, the coach would start the session by asking about my “wins,” would acknowledge my effort and would celebrate with me every little win. It is the small victories that help to keep the momentum and motivation going.
Gratitude: This was a practice I already had, but I learned to keep a gratitude journal, as part of my spiritual practice. Prayer, to me, was just expressing gratitude for all that I have. This also helped to keep the negative things in perspective.
While coaching played an important role in my own wellness journey, it is important to note that this is only one tool to be considered when dealing with stress and burnout. People who suffer from depression should access the appropriate treatment services. I hope that by telling my own story, we can help alleviate some of the stigma that still plagues medical culture.
Dr. Raji Menon is a general surgeon and palliative care physician practising in Cornwall, Canada. She is a professional life coach and is certified by the International Coach Academy. She can be reached through email here.
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