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A 5-step wellness checkup

Focus on the 9,000 things you can do, rather than the 1,000 you can’t and follow these tips to reduce stress

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As the craziness of 2020 ends, I’m choosing to focus on the things I can do.

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Three decades ago, a friend of mine, W. Mitchell, was riding his 350 cc motorcycle in San Francisco, when he was hit by a car that ran a stop sign. His motorcycle hit the ground, the gas cap popped off, he was drenched in gasoline, and was instantly engulfed in flames. He survived, even though 60% of his body had third degree burns that fried his face and burned off all his fingers. After more than a dozen surgeries, Mitchell was discharged to figure out how to live with his new look and abilities.

Not one to let setbacks define him, Mitchell got his new life together, started a few companies and became a private pilot. After earning his instrument and commercial pilot rating, he was flying a group of friends from Grand Junction, Colorado, to San Francisco. His plane crashed shortly after takeoff. Fortunately, the full fuel tanks did not rupture and there was no fire. Everyone lived, but Mitchell fractured his thoracic spine, transected his spinal cord, and was paralyzed from the waist down.

[Stay accountable: Download a hard copy of the 5-step wellness checkup below]

While in the spinal cord rehabilitation hospital, he learned how to use a wheelchair, get in and out of bed, and to take care of himself with his new disability. Since his legs no longer worked, they cut off his toes and attached them to his hands to increase function.

During his stay in the rehab facility, he met a young man who had lost the use of his legs in a rock-climbing accident. The man had been an athlete and an outdoorsman. For him, losing the use of his legs resulted in severe depression and active suicidal thoughts.

Mitchell wheeled his chair up next to the young man’s bed and said, “You know, before I lost the use of my legs, there were 10,000 things I could do. Now there are 9,000. I can either focus on the 1,000 I’ve lost, or I can get busy doing some of the 9,000. If I can do only 10% of what I have left, I’ll have lived one of the most incredible lives ever.”

As the craziness of 2020 ends, I’m choosing to focus on the things I can do.

Manage expectations

It seems like the beginning of 2020 was a decade ago. Friday, Mar. 6, I arrived at LAX from what turned out to be my last EMS conference of the year – or maybe ever. During the conference, we were just starting to hear about COVID-19. We’d greet lifelong friends with an elbow bump, and then, more often than not, go in for the hug, even though we knew we were not supposed to. Shortly after arriving home, I learned that someone I’d had a beer with in the hotel bar overlooking Tampa Bay had been diagnosed with COVID-19. He would die a few weeks later.

When we first started learning about COVID-19 in March, my wife asked, “So we have to stay home on quarantine for 14 days, is that right?” I said, “Well we should really plan to hunker down until Christmas. Then it will seem like a bonus if we get out earlier rather than just hoping every day that it will be safe tomorrow.”

She didn’t like hearing that, but we lived up to it as a family and figured out how to work, Zoom school, stay connected and have fun while keeping ourselves virus-free in our little pod.

As May rolled around, I’d been attending daily webinars about COVID-19 and reading all of the medical literature on this confounding disease. I said to my wife, “You remember when I said that we should plan to be hunkered down until Christmas? You’ll notice that I did not say which Christmas.”

I talk with a lot of people who ask when this will all be over so we can “go back to normal.” When I tell them I think it’s going to be 5 years or so before we can gather in large close groups unmasked, they recoil in horror. My friends who are musicians, run restaurants and coordinate EMS conferences are justifiably scared that my prediction means financial ruin for their job or their business if it has not been ruined already.

It may sound strange, but for me, the 5-year prediction is liberating. When I accept that I’ll have 5 more years of physical distancing, using masks and washing my hands, I can focus on what’s possible given these constraints. If these exciting vaccines do what we hope they will do, are manufactured at scale, distributed effectively and administered to the vast majority of the world’s population faster than my prediction, it will be a joyful surprise. For my mental health, the remote possibility of a surprise is much better than hoping things will be back to normal next month and being constantly disappointed.

I accept that I can’t be in the mosh pit for concerts, dine in my favorite restaurants, hang out at the playground with the parents of my son’s classmates, or share long conversations with lifelong EMS friends in hotel bars at conferences. These are part of the 1,000 things I can no longer do for now.

I’m choosing to focus on the 9,000 things I can do. For me, this includes writing and publishing a book, getting both my knees replaced, learning to play the guitar badly, getting a new puppy, making our 9 year old son breakfast every morning, and reading him to sleep every night.

5 steps to improve your mental health

As you think about putting 2020 behind you and looking forward to the reality of 2021, here are a few things to contemplate. Download a hard copy of these steps below.

  1. Relationship checkup. Do you have a few people that you connect with regularly? Loneliness is common and really damaging to our mental health. I’ve got one friend that I talk with for an hour every Friday morning at 6 a.m. We’ve been doing it for 12 years, but I cherish it more during COVID-19. I’ve got another friend who I exchange silly animal memes with every morning and another small group that meets for virtual happy hour every couple of weeks. If you don’t have a regular connection with someone hardwired into your schedule, it’s something to consider.
  2. Exercise checkup. Moving your body is a key component of stress management, physical health and mental health. If your normal routine has been interrupted by gym closures and the inability to do team sports, can you do something else? Walking, running, hiking, biking and tennis are all activities with low virus transmission potential. If you have the resources, bikes, treadmills and rowing machines connected by video to a community of exercisers are a lot of fun. Of course, there are lots of free online yoga, stretching and other fitness classes. It really does not matter what you’re doing, as long as you’re doing something to keep fit.
  3. Creativity checkup. A mind that is learning or creating is happier and healthier than one that’s just doing the same old thing day after day. While my guitar playing will cause most people to turn the volume way up on the TV, learning songs from YouTube improves my mood and my overall outlook on life. You can paint, scrapbook, play music, learn a new language, read about World War II history, play video games or learn to sculpt. It can be anything that provides a little challenge for your mind. Again, it does not matter what you’re doing, as long as you’re doing something.
  4. Stress management checkup. Alcohol and marijuana sales have exploded during the pandemic. The substance-based approach to stress management is not very effective and it often causes more stress than it helps. It’s a good idea to take an honest look at your potentially harmful stress management practices and make sure that you’ve got a solid set of healthy effective approaches in your life. Exercise is a key strategy. Spending time in nature, playing with pets, meditation, hot baths and listening to music can be on your list. Just make sure you have something in this area that you do regularly.
  5. Compassion checkup. Compassion is taking action to reduce or relieve the suffering of others. Yes, if you work in EMS, you’re helping to ease and relieve suffering everyday at work. Yes, that counts. But there’s something powerful about offering help and support to someone when it’s not your job. It does not have to be something big. Walk the dogs at your local shelter. Have a regular phone or video chat with someone who lives alone and is not going outside their home. Help a neighbor kid with their math homework over the phone. Neuroscience research shows that extending compassion to others is the anecdote to burnout and that it measurably increases resilience.

I hope that your 2021 is better than your 2020. While it would be a nice surprise to have things return to normal faster than 5 years, I hope that you turn to your 9,000. If you do a small percentage of the things you can, you’re set up for a wonderful year.

Want a hard copy of this mental health check to keep in your desk or to share with your colleagues? Fill out the form below to download a printable guide.

Read next: 5 gifts for providers and patients. This holiday season, focus on the gifts you can give and receive every day with true connections

Mike Taigman uses more than four decades of experience to help EMS leaders and field personnel improve the care/service they provide to patients and their communities. Mike is the Improvement Guide for FirstWatch, a company which provides near-real time monitoring and analysis of data along with performance improvement coaching for EMS agencies.

He teaches Improvement Science in the Master’s in Healthcare Administration and Interprofessional Leadership at the University of California San Francisco and the Emergency Health Services Management Graduate Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He’s the author of “Super-Charge Your Stress Management in the Age of COVID-19.” Contact him at