‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Part 4: PROCESS

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Everything in aviation we know because someone somewhere died… We have purchased, at great cost, lessons literally bought with blood… We cannot have the moral failure of forgetting these lessons and have to relearn them.”

Sully Sullenberger
Pilot of Flight 1549, ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’

All frontline healthcare warriors will bear scars from emotionally distressing experiences in the workplace (e.g. major incidents with multiple casualties, unsuccessful paediatric resuscitations, personal mistakes resulting in patient harm). For the most part, members of the public will only rehearse being exposed to these flavours of horror by watching movies or having nightmares. For us, it is a potential reality every shift.

In the aftermath, the way one processes these events heavily influences future commitment to similar causes and cognitive appraisals (challenge vs threat mindset) – the key determinants of mental toughness.

Adaptive processing should incorporate ‘Black Box Thinking’ and self-compassion. 

‘Black Box Thinking’

BBT betterConsider the aviation vs healthcare discussion for a moment – arguably the two most safety-critical industries in the world.

On average, just one commercial flight goes down for every 8.3 million take-offs worldwide. In the US alone, there are approximately 400, 000 avoidable medical errors every year, which is the equivalent of two jumbo jet crashes every day [1, 2]. That is a gargantuan discrepancy in passenger versus patient safety.

Of course, it is well documented that the two industries are not directly comparable. There are far more reasons for a patient to die than there are varieties of plane crash, and medics do not yet have the option to switch on a mental bandwidth-sparing machine that’s able to mop up routine tasks. Nonetheless, the statistics illustrate an indisputable point – we have a huge amount to learn from our aviation counterparts, whether we like it or not.

Why is aviation such a staggeringly high performance industry? The answer is simple: there is an institutional culture of learning from failure. Every plane is equipped with two sturdy black boxes which record conversation in the cockpit, and electronic decision-making (i.e. which buttons were pushed). In the case of an accident, the black boxes are promptly retrieved from the battered fuselage, opened, and the contained data interrogated. Every aspect of the crash gets the fine-tooth-comb-treatment to identify exactly what went wrong. Protocols are subsequently modified so the same mistake can never happen again. Error is not viewed as a sign of weakness or inadequacy – on the contrary, it is treated as a precious (even exciting) learning opportunity for everyone who might benefit.

Healthcare culture is largely the polar-opposite. Failure is stigmatised because doctors are supposed to be infallible in the eyes of the public. Mistakes get ‘swept under the carpet’ by the guilty to avoid being held accountable and where that is not possible, the blame-game ensues [3]. When one’s professional credibility is at stake, a successful escape from the situation is higher up the priority list than learning from the failure; and the omnipresent threat of litigation only serves to further entrench this defensive, maladaptive institutional culture. The immediate gratification of reputation-preservation trumps the potential for professional growth that naturally follows acknowledgement of personal failure. We routinely blind ourselves to the best possible signposting for getting better at our jobs – our mistakes.

Whilst this growth-stunting phenomenon will vary in severity across the spectrum of healthcare environments, you would be hardpressed to find a doctor, anywhere in the world, not regularly exposed to this embarrassing peculiarity of our profession.

Be a black box thinker. Own your mistakes. Share your lessons. Interrogate every performance with the curiosity and tenacity of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch. Re-conceptualise your relationship with failure so that it no longer represents an existential threat, but acts as a guide for your ‘practice’ phase.

‘Reflective practice’ is an overused and misunderstood term in medical training (in my opinion). Often, written evidence of it is a requirement for career progression, and when one ‘reflects’ for that reason alone, it ceases to be useful. Furthermore, documented reflections will too frequently centre around what went well – a less lucrative training exercise.

Apply the black box philosophy to your reflective practice and force yourself to face potentially ugly truths. Embrace being criticised and never back down from asking a ‘stupid question’ – it tees you up for focused training and subsequent accelerated improvement. Have the bravery to be the detective leading the warts-and-all investigation on yourself.

Self-Compassion

In frontline healthcare, we are routinely exposed to life-changing injury and acute illness. If we take our workplace goggles off, and dare to view the worst aspects of our jobs through the eyes of a ‘normal’ person, it can be intensely disturbing. Furthermore, subscribing to the highest professional standards can make us prone to gratuitous suffering as we’ll mistakenly convince ourselves that we could have done more for unsalvageable patients. Our keenness to take full responsibility can render us vulnerable to unnecessary self-punishment.

Without appropriate perspective and personal support, our view of the world, and indeed of ourselves, can become warped. Long-term self-neglect in our line of work will eat away at our commitment to the job, potentially invite long-term psychological damage (PTSD), and ultimately, harm our patients.

When a particularly traumatising incident occurs, many institutions will employ a ‘critical incident stress management’ (CISM) protocol, which encompasses a range of supportive interventions aimed at preventing PTSD [4]. This includes a formal group debrief, led by an outside party (usually a psychologist) within 72 hours of the event. Despite being widely practiced, this approach is controversial as no definitive benefit has been demonstrated in the literature. However, widely accepted to be of critical importance for psychological wellbeing in the immediate aftermath of an emotionally traumatising incident is a ‘defusion’ process [4, 5, 6].

‘Defusion’ is a team get-together where thoughts and feelings are shared in confidence. When threat appraisals drench our brains in cortisol and distort our perceptions, defusion allows for piecing together the chronology and specifics of the event through organic, informal discussion with team-mates. It is an opportunity for emotional support, having a collective laugh/cry at the absurdity of the job, and an accurate information gathering exercise in a safe environment. The team pull together in the aftermath, are honest about their emotional frailties, and find strength in each other. It lacks the rigidity and intrusion of an uninvited formal debrief led by an ‘outsider’.

Pain shared = pain divided

Joy shared = joy multiplied [7]

In the hospital setting, it can be as simple as insisting on a chat in the coffee room after a big resus, or a quick get-together after work. It might seem minor, but unnecessary guilt, anger, confusion and other damaging emotions can be thwarted by this process. However informal and insignificant it might appear on the surface, it is of fundamental importance, and must be sought out, however logistically difficult.

In more extreme environments, such as combat or the prehospital setting, sitting down to defuse should also be used as an opportunity to regain a feeling of physical safety, get warm, hydrate and refuel (eat something).

Self-compassion via defusion is a critical strategy for building mental toughness. Taking care of yourself and your team after an acute insult preserves commitment to the job, and prevents lasting psychological scars that will render you less able to cope emotionally with the inevitable acute stress that lies in wait.

Summary

Use mistakes as signposts for self-advancement as opposed to sources of embarrassment. Own your failures instead of hiding them, and use them to guide your ‘practice’ phase.

Always remember to ‘defuse’ with your team after emotionally challenging cases/incidents. Share the pain, and multiply the joy. Never underestimate the therapeutic value, and heavy dose of perspective, that humour offers.

‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Roundup

You are mentally tough if able to state the following (Part 1):

“I am 100% committed”

“I feel challenged”

To build and maintain mental toughness, I propose seven strategies over three phases of the game:

‘Practice’ (Part 2)

  • Immersion
  • Deliberate Practice
  • Visualisation

‘Perform’ (Part 3)

  • Tactical Breathing
  • Cognitive Reframing

‘Process’ (Part 4)

  • ‘Black Box Thinking’
  • Self-compassion

Own your performance.

Robert Lloyd
@PonderingEM

References

  1. Black Box Thinking. Matthew Syed.
  2. 2017 Royal Society of Medicine Easter Lecture: Creating a high performance revolution in healthcare. Matthew Syed.
  3. What do Emergency Medicine and Donald. J Trump have in common? Robert Lloyd, EMJ Blog.
  4. Mental health response to disasters and other critical incidents. BMJ Best Practice.
  5. Debriefing and Defusing. http://www.davellen.com/page21.htm
  6. Shoes, Sex and Secrets: Stress in EMS. Ashley Liebig. SMACC Chicago lecture.
  7. Grossman, L.C.D., On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. 2008: Warrior Science Publications.

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‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Part 3: PERFORM

Arousal‘Practice’ is about building a skillset, and fostering a way of life (via ‘immersion’) that serves to strengthen perception of one’s available resources when crunch time arrives.

However, reality dictates that certain scenarios are impossible to prepare for, particularly in the emergency medicine arena. The more chaotic the workplace, the higher the frequency of unavoidable threat appraisals.

Therefore, it is crucial to utilise strategies which stabilise one’s level of emotional arousal in the heat of battle. Namely tactical breathing and cognitive reframing.

Tactical Breathing

“Feel breath filling every cell of your body. This is our ritual. We master our breath, we master our mind. Pulling the trigger will become an unconscious effort. You will be aware of it, but not directing it. And as you exhale, find your natural respiratory pause and the space between heart-beats.”

American Sniper

In a high stakes game, where your next move (performance) has implications for the survival of another human being, it is a guarantee that your sympathetic nervous system will be working overtime. We know, of course, that this can work in our favour if challenged (perceived resources > demands); indeed, we’ll feel ‘pumped’ and ‘ready for action’. On the other hand, this heightened physiological arousal can be the architect of a catastrophic blunder if threatened (i.e. demands > resources; see MMTM Part 1 for a full explanation).

The only component of the autonomic nervous system that we can override and take conscious control over is our breathing [1, 2].

Deliberately slowing respiratory rate in a moment of crisis has the effect of preventing further escalation of other features of the sympathetic surge, such as tachycardia and hypertension. This feeling of control over our physiological arousal induces a prevailing sense of clarity and calm. It serves to psychologically detach the conscious self from the stressful moment, allowing an imaginary reset button to be pressed with subsequent restoration of mental bandwidth. Visual and auditory perceptions widen as the mind is released from the paralysing effect of the cortisol dump. Professional presence in the moment is re-established.

square breathing

‘Tactical breathing’ (or ‘square breathing’) describes the four-second method pioneered by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, of On Combat fame [3]. One must breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four and then hold again for four, on repeat until the desired effect is achieved. Whilst this provides the stressed individual with a mental model to follow, it is not essential to adhere rigidly to the timings. The crucial task is committing to a conscious slowing and deepening of one’s breathing cycle.

This idea is nothing new or revolutionary. Breathing techniques have been utilised by elite soldiers, martial artists, professional athletes, and a host of other world-beaters for generations [4]. Underestimate this tool at your peril.

Cognitive Reframing

A salient feature of the threat mindset is a thinking pattern polluted with self-doubt and persecution.

‘I can’t do this’

‘I don’t know what to do’

‘My mind is blank and my patient is dying’

Naturally, this has a devastating effect on performance. If you are telling yourself that you’re not up to the job, it is highly unlikely that you will prove yourself wrong.

Pressing ‘control/alt/delete’ on these thoughts, and inserting useful content, is therefore critical. This process is called cognitive reframing, and it can be achieved via positive self-talk and an ‘incrementalsteps’ approach.

Positive self-talk

This is the process of forcing one’s internal dialogue to suggest something positive. It can jolt the mind out of a persecutory spiral, if sufficient commitment/buy-in is present [5, 6].

It can be generally motivational:

You have trained well for this’

You’ve been in this position before and succeeded’ 

‘Relax and focus’

Or be used as a method for directing cognitive resources to something specific:

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ 

You have plenty of time, just bring the epiglottis into view’ 

Positive self-talk synergises well with tactical breathing, providing, in effect, a two-pronged intervention on physiological and cognitive over-arousal.

An ‘incremental-steps’ approach

During a crisis or particularly demanding scenario, it is always a bad idea to look at the big picture.

Break down the required process into its component parts, and focus only on your first step. Upon completion of that step, allow yourself to contemplate the next, and so on. This will modify your perception of the situational demands by reframing the scenario into a series of manageable challenges instead of one giant threat, and in doing so, hold off any detrimental physiology [7].

For example, if confronted with an unconscious head injury patient who is obstructing his airway and gargling blood, do not allow yourself to contemplate the overall objective (i.e. getting the patient safely anaesthetised and intubated). First focus solely on applying high-flow oxygen, appropriate monitoring, and allocating team roles. Next, focus on achieving intravenous access, followed by readying the airway equipment and drugs, then instrumenting the airway, thereafter ‘epiglottoscopy’, and so on. A state of panic is warded off by a refusal to allow the mind to wander too far forwards.

If you avoid looking at the mountain peak, and focus exclusively on the first obstacle lying in front of you, you will arrive at the summit in no time.

Use positive self-talk to encourage and guide you through each incremental step.

Summary

  • Threat appraisals are an unfortunate inevitability for all acute care clinicians.
  • Taking conscious control over your respiratory cycle grants you the ‘keys’ to the rest of your autonomic physiology.
  • Positive self-talk intervenes on persecutory thought pollution, and can redirect cognitive resources to specific tasks. It can synergise with tactical breathing as a method for ‘resetting’ in a moment of high stress.
  • An incremental-steps approach converts a significant threat into a series of manageable challenges.

In the fourth and final instalment of My Mental Toughness Manifesto, I’ll be discussing a healthy and progressive methodology for PROCESSING a highly stressful clinical encounter after the event.

References

  1. Mike Lauria. Enhancing Human Performance in Resuscitation Part 3 – Performance-Enhancing Psychological Skills. EMCrit Blog. Published on November 22, 2015. Accessed on May 5th 2017. Available at [https://emcrit.org/blogpost/performance-enhancing-psychological-skills/].
  2. Seppala, E.M., et al., Breathing-based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in U.S. military veterans: a randomized controlled longitudinal study. J Trauma Stress, 2014. 27(4): p. 397-405.
  3. Grossman, L.C.D., On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. 2008: Warrior Science Publications.
  4. Weisinger H, Pawliw-Fry JP. Performance Under Pressure. New York, NY: Crown Business.
  5. Scott Weingart. Podcast 177 – Chris Hicks on the Fog of War: Training the Resuscitationist Mindset. EMCrit Blog. Published on July 11, 2016. Accessed on February 24th 2017. Available at [https://emcrit.org/podcasts/chris-hicks-fog-of-war/].
  6. Tod, D., J. Hardy, and E. Oliver, Effects of self-talk: a systematic review. J Sport Exerc Psychol, 2011. 33(5): p. 666-87.
  7. Rob Orman, Rich Levitan, ERCast – Psychology of the Difficult Airway, 2014

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‘Why tomorrow’s patient needs a digital NHS’

On February 22, I had the honour of compèring an event that brought together NHS leaders, senior clinicians and digital entrepreneurs – .

It was the one-year summit of DigitalHealth.London, an organisation (funded in large part by NHS England) designed to accelerate the uptake of digital technology in the NHS.

The event sizzled with excitement and ambition. Conference delegates were talking about the future of the NHS in positive, expansive terms with an up-beat chirpiness that starkly contrasts the doom-and-gloom-ridden water cooler discussions currently reigning supreme across UK hospitals. The air of possibility and optimism was utterly infectious. I had a great time.

I am a now a fully-fledged digital health believer, and adoption of new technologies discussed at the event can’t come soon enough in my opinion. Interventional virtual reality? Artificial intelligence-augmented clinical decision-making? Healthcare provision to every human being on Earth via smartphones? Yes please.

I met some great people, including the inspirational Molly Watt (one of the most accomplished public speakers I’ve heard; if you haven’t heard her story, check out her website – phenomenal stuff), director of digital experience at NHS England Juliet Bauer, and the amazing Dr. Keith Grimes – a GP from Eastbourne and digital health evangelist, whose work I have admired for a while now. He gave a typically superb talk on the application of virtual reality in medicine, and has since written an insightful blog post reflecting on the artificial intelligence panel discussion. Watch this space for a future collaboration between Keith and I.

DigitalHealth.London have put together a neat full write-up, and produced a couple of beautifully shot videos of the summit, which I happen to feature in! Here they are:

Needless to say, you can count on some future blog posts exploring digital transformation in healthcare!

Thank you DigitalHealth.London (in particular James Somauroo, Yinka Makinde, Rebekah Tailor, and Hannah Harniess) for inviting me to be involved in your fantastic event.

It’s a great time to be a doctor.

Rob
@PonderingEM

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