Adam Martin, PharmD, ACSM-CPT
Adam Martin, PharmD, ACSM-CPT
Dr. Martin is a licensed pharmacist, having earned his doctorate of pharmacy degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy in 2012. He is the founder of TheFitPharmacist movement, which strives to empower pharmacists and pharmacy students to thrive in their careers by overcoming stress and unhealthy habits using science-based principles and unmatched support. His passion for helping those in pharmacy led to TheFitPharmacist Podcast on the PharmacyPodcast network, where he and his fiancée provide practical tips for staying healthy while working at the pharmacy, along with interviewing professionals in the top of their respective fields to bring their knowledge right to your earbuds. He merges his passion of pharmacy with the experts in nutrition through being a licensed owner and nutrition consultant at The Diet Doc Pittsburgh North, with the company having over 25 years of success. Learn more and join TheFitPharmacist movement at www.thefitpharmacist.com.

How Pharmacists Can Stress-Proof Their Brains

SEPTEMBER 25, 2017

 


If you were to ask any pharmacist what the most challenging part of the job is, regardless of the specifics, they would likely say stress. Whether it is not having enough staff to help perform the tasks needed to make it through the day, managing the team to move forward in a unified direction where everyone is on board, or having a difficult conversation with a patient who just received a worrisome diagnosis, stress is at the forefront of our jobs and work environment. However, it does not need to consume our lives. It may often feel as if all we live in a stress pool, and this can carry over into our non-pharmacy lives, time at home with family and friends and even on our vacation.

Believe it or not, stress in and of itself is a healthy response to our environment and inner thoughts. It is part of who we are and how we interact on a day-to-day basis. The problem is when our level of stress goes above and beyond our normal limit, so much so that it overtakes us to the point where we feel like we can't even breathe (yes, I have been there). It would be unhealthy to fully eliminate stress, and that shouldn't be the goal. But we should aim to reduce stress to a healthy level, so having a healthy relationship with how we perceive, interact with, and deal with stress is the Rx4Success we need.

Here is how to do it.


First Step: Know Where Stress Comes from to Control It
The part of our brain responsible for the stress response is the amygdala, an almond-shaped nuclei located in the temporal lobes that manages our memory, decision making, and emotions. This part of our brain has been around since the stone age, back when having a stress response meant the difference between life and death in the wild. As such, it acts as an alarm center and tends to serve as a thorough protective mechanism, leading to an overreaction to ensure we get the message of inherent danger. The problem is that we no longer live in the wild. Living in this state of never-ending high alert no longer serves us, and in fact, fear and worry can hold us back.

The opposing part of the brain to the amygdala is the prefrontal cortex, which takes in the information we give it, organizes it, and then judges it. It functions as the CEO of our brain. This brain center functions to calm down the amygdala during unnecessary stress, to override its overactivity and take over. The solution to excessive stress, therefore, is to train the brain to be prefrontal cortex-dominant. But how do we do this?

The ability to manage stress in the workplace is one of the most important skills that pharmacists can possess to successfully lead a team. Pharmacists who can deal with stress will be able to build something extraordinary, while also enjoying the process and not stressing over every little thing.

So how can we stop stress in its tracks? The parasympathetic nervous system acts in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system, the one that revs us up and sets us up for fight or flight. Therefore, to blunt the stress response, we want to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The best way to do this is using slow, deep breathingIt sounds simple, and it is. It is not the easiest thing in the heat of a stressful situation to make a priority, but with practice, one can reap the major benefits of this simple solution.

Second Step: Stay Grounded to Minimize Stress
Stress thrives for those who are living their lives haphazardly with no clear direction. To stop this from happening, stay focused on what really matters. Meditation is a tool to reach mindfulness, which is a state of openness, where we accept things as they are and don't judge them or rush to change them in that moment.

Meditation is one of the most effective and efficient methods to help overcome and manage the feeling and state of stress. It is scientifically proven that through just 10 minutes of daily meditation an individual can dramatically increase the ability to detect stress instead of just reacting to it and being its victim.

Practicing mindfulness can start small and grow from there. The most important thing is to get started and turn it into a habit Learn how to effectively create habits here.

The benefits include increasing our ability to focus, keeping attention on a difficult task, feeling compassion for others, controlling our emotions, and even decreasing the perception of pain.

Those who practice meditation will gain more control of themselves through being more aware of their minds.

The goal is not to directly control one's emotions but to connect and notice them.

Here are some simple strategies to start mindfulness:

  • Notice the smell of a flower.
  • Feel the water from a hot shower.
  • Take note of someone's facial expression.
  • Remove your shoes and walk slowly around your room.
  • Imagine yourself as a tree and stretch your arms out wide to the sky.
  • Shift your weight from one foot to another, feeling your body against the ground beneath you.
  • Look around the room, and describe 3 objects you notice in detail.
  • Slowly breath in for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, then pause for a count of 4; repeat 4 times.
  • Close your eyes and imagine yourself in nature and then verbally describe what you see in your mind.
  • Go for a slow walk outside.

These are all ways to begin training the brain to live in the moment.

Here are some key concepts to being mindful:

  • Function as an observer.
  • Make your priority to just notice, not interact with or judge the situation you experience.
  • Slow your breathing and focus on that pace; stay in the moment instead of thinking about what's next.
  • Take some time to notice your environment, the sights, sounds, and smells.
  • If you get a feeling of fear, replace that with being curious.


Third Step: Action Is the Cure for Fear
Fear is often the cause of a lot of our stress, whether it be of the unknown or a big deadline coming up. The best solution? Take action. If we are scared of our emotions, we must face them before we can expect to overcome or manage them. Instead of just feeling our emotions, we must be able to first view our emotions. The difference in allowing our emotions to be expressed versus them controlling us is the choice to allow them to be expressed. We are in charge.

So, how do we do this? First, acknowledge and observe your stress level rising, notice what is stressing you out, make an action plan to reduce stress, and then act on it.

Here are some specific tips to overcome stress:

  • When faced with stress at work, remind yourself why you do what you do. This is enough often to get us back in control of our feelings.
  • Take a walk in nature; if you can't physically do that, looking at pictures of nature can also reduce stress.
  • Think about people you love.
  • Write out a daily gratitude diary.
  • Color in an adult coloring book.
  • Exercise.







Fourth Step: Be in Control!

Sometimes it may feel like stress can run our lives, but stress does not define us. Before effectively dealing with the cause of stress, we must realize that we are in control. This does not mean that it will be easy. Our response to stress is hardwired into our brains, and starting a new habit is not easy. Time, practice, and patience are required.

One way to feel like we are in control is use simple mantras, such as the following:

  • "I've got this!"
  • "I can relax"
  • "This is exciting!"
  • "I am going to be a much stronger person because of this experience."
  • "In this moment, all of my needs are met."

Give one of these mantras a try the next time you feel overwhelmed by stress and see what happens with practice. You must first believe that you are in control of your stress before you actually have control. 
 

Fifth Step: Have Self Compassion
Judging and being hard on yourself will only set you back. Guilt and perfectionism are self-imposed causes of stress that serve no purpose. We create a lot of our own stress through self-judgment, but what we should have is self-compassion. Having goals and pushing yourself are important for growth and to perform at your best potential, but you must learn to forgive yourself when you make a mistake.

When you do make a mistake, recognize it, own it, learn what you can, and move on. There is no benefit to staying stuck on the past, and it only keeps us from progressing in the future. Use your mistakes to your advantage, rather than ruminating on them and allowing them to stress you out. How to do this leads into the next step.


Sixth Step: Become Cognitively Flexible

Being productive is the most important reason that learning to deal with stress will be an asset for your life. Those who are fixated on the past have very little room to be mentally present and productive at work.

Here are some tips to put into action:

  • Check in with yourself and ask if ruminating on your stress serves is positive, or if it is only taking away from time and energy that could be spent advancing your life.
  • Notice the things that stress you out, observe them, and then let them go.
  • Practicing this with time will allow you to actually change the structure of your brain, making this process of letting go easier and second nature the more you make this a routine.



 

We can all fall prey to thought patterns that thwart our ability to focus on what really matters. Being aware of them is the first step to making a change.

Here are some common thinking traps to avoid:

 

  1. Black and white thinking: putting things into 2 categories: great or terrible
  2. Emotional reasoning: assuming something is true just because it feels true
  3. Tunnel vision: stressors overwhelm you to the point where you are unable to focus on anything else
  4. Wishful thinking: organizing your life around what you hope will happen vs reality
  5. Personalizing: taking outside stressors too personally and thinking everything is directed at you
  6. Blaming yourself: blaming yourself for events that have nothing to do with you
  7. Guilt and regret: feeling at fault or remorseful about your distant past 
  8. Pessimism: giving your power away to your stressor to the point where it becomes larger than it actually is; viewing life through a negative lens
  9. Overthinking and second-guessing: finding yourself thinking twice about everything due to worrying the same mistake will happen again
  10. Unhelpful comparisons: comparing yourself to others 

Another thing to keep in mind is to think in terms of abundance, rather than ruminate on what you don't have. Thinking with a scarcity mindset can limit your success. Our brain defaults to assuming the worst, taking on a catastrophe mindset. Don't make a mountain out of a mole hill. 

Here is how to overcome a catastrophe mindset:

  • Focus on what you have, not what you don't have.
  • Make your priorities clear, and focus on them.
  • Stay focused; avoid distractions.
  • Nothing ventured, nothing gained; take risk within reason.
  • Step out of your comfort zone.
  • Keep your long-term goals in your sights.
  • Surround yourself with supportive relationships.
  • Allow yourself to step back when you fall into negative thinking and honestly assess your mindset.
  • Keep a daily gratitude journal; it is the easiest way to stay on track with progress and positivity 

The world is abundant with joy, if you just take the time to see it.


Seventh Step: Take the Magic Pill of Life
As a pharmacist and personal trainer, I can say with 100% confidence that the cure-all for stress, negativity, and unwanted feelings overall is exercise.

Research shows that working out 3 to 5 days per week at a minimum decreases stress and increases brain function. Of course, always consult with a physician about an acceptable exercise regimen acceptable before beginning.

So, the formula for dealing with stress is exercise + mindfulness + growth mindset = calm.

For great resources and articles on exercise and health, be sure to browse our Healthy Living Section.

A Word on the Benefits of Stress (Yes, They Exist) 
Try and think of stress as an opportunity to learn and, as a tool to strengthen your passion. Shift away from a stressed-out mindset and toward a challenge mindset. Use stress like fuel to drive you toward progress.

Obviously, stress left unchecked can wreak havoc and cause negative pressures on our minds and bodies. However, if we are in control rather than our stress, we can allow it to be a tool for growth past our comfort zone and fear. Stress is an excellent indicator to show that we are moving toward unfamiliar territory and that we are expanding beyond our comfort zones. Generally, those who are scared or stressed to do something should proceed and tackle the challenge! Action is the best cure for fear. 

Want to learn more ways to become a FitPharmacist? Visit our community and join in the movement.


Reference

Greenberg, M. The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity. New Harbinger Publications; 2017.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 



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