Conquering Duty Anxiety

I really don’t like being on call at the hospital.

Yes, someone has to do it. Yes, we get paid overtime to do it. Yes, this is how we gain experience as doctors. But all of those logical structured reasons fade away when I’m startled awake at 1am by a nurse calling about the patient in cubicle 5 who won’t stop bleeding.

When I was on pediatric medicine I would have a lot of anxiety to deal with on duty. It’s terrifying to be the first responder to a critical situation when you’re not 100% sure you can handle the case. To make matters worse, I was dealing with babies. Delicate (yet somehow also borderline indestructible) little human beings. In the beginning I would have regular panic attacks and palpitations, but as time went on I got more comfortable handling the common emergencies. I became more confident in my abilities, and could usually rest assured that if there was anything I really couldn’t handle, I could call my senior.

The most pervasive part of duty anxiety for me, though, the one that crops up on every rotation regardless of my self-confidence is the uncertainty about being called. You can never tell whether a night will be calm or hectic, whether you will be called ten times in one hour or once for the whole night. And that kind of unpredictability is anathema to me.

As humans we like to think that we have control over our universe. As interns we have all kinds of superstitions for keeping emergency duties light. Knock on wood to keep the bad karma away; when you notice that a night is being particularly uneventful, you can’t say so out loud or you’ll jinx it.  We do these things to try and hold on to the idea that we can dictate how a night will progress just by monitoring our actions.

But letting go of duty anxiety means letting go of the crazy notion that what we do or think will somehow impact the chances of a patient taking a turn for the worse. Or will somehow keep a hundred people from turning up in the emergency department in the middle of night.

It won’t.

The night will unfold as it was always going to unfold, whether or not you stay up having the world’s most intense staring match with your phone, whether or not you knock on all the wood. Whether or not you try to grab a few hours of sleep or comment on how quiet the wards are being. All the superstitions are doing is tricking you into thinking you have some measure of control, so that you think it’s your fault when the emergency duty turns into a madhouse. “I have 3 emergency surgeries because I didn’t knock on wood this morning”.  It sounds completely illogical, because it is. But that’s usually the nature of anxiety.

I have found that the best way to conquer my duty anxiety is to relinquish this idea of control. To let the night progress as it will, without trying to force it into whatever hopes or expectations I might be harboring. When I do that, when I go about my tasks and breaktimes free from the thought that what I’m doing will make or break the night, I find that I’m a lot less anxious and a lot less tired too.

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4 thoughts on “Conquering Duty Anxiety

  1. barefootmegz says:

    I never knew I felt this way until you said it. Duty anxiety is real. ESPECIALLY on paeds and especially at the beginning of a new rotation. Thank you for putting it so succinctly, especially when it comes to relinquishing the idea of control. A lot of doctors are obsessed with the idea of control, aren’t we? I think you’ve just written one of the most insightful pieces of writing about being a junior doctor. Kudos!

    Liked by 1 person

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