June 17, 2021

Recovering from COVID Emotional Trauma through Mindful Exercise – My Case Study

By Puneet Gupta, MD, FACEP

If you’re reading this, odds are this year too ran roughshod over your mental wellbeing. It left scars on our souls. Working in the emergency department, we saw incredible stories of love and loss, and our worlds were encompassed in emotional and mental pain. I’m not here to talk about what we all know, of course. I’m here to share my path towards healing and growing in hopes that you will take something from this.

I remember when I realized there was a problem. It was January 2021. I was talking to my team and didn’t see that elite group of prehospital professionals I knew, just ghosts. Then I looked in a mirror and realized I wasn’t much better. Quiet desperation pervaded LA County. Every day was awful.

As my days went on and the cries of patients blurred together, I went for a run. I ran as hard as I could, and then I started to “live deliberately,” as they say. Walking a path of mindfulness led me back to who I was (along with my uncle role to the three new babies in my life who also brought back the smiles).

But what is mindfulness? It’s not a cure; it would be wrong to look at it that way. It might be better to compare it to blood pressure medication. Just like blood pressure, you will always have stress. Stress is a part of who we are. It’s part of life. However, just like blood pressure, if it remains elevated, you develop chronic disease. If it’s out of control, you get catastrophic events. That’s where mindfulness comes in, with meditation as a component.

I won’t give you a 101 lesson on mindfulness; there are stacks of books and classes on that. But, maybe I can illuminate it. It’s not an escape, and it’s not emptying your mind or bliss through nothingness. Like the most effective current mental healing techniques, mindfulness is about deliberately looking at your life, taking your experiences and the emotions that come with them and allowing yourself to examine them. While there are guidelines, it is a personal journey. You need to work toward it your own way, whether that is by meditation or just appreciating the way the grass feels between your toes.

I started by running. It was for my new role, working with wildland fire. I wanted to show them this old man still has it by keeping up with their PT. During every run, I focused on the moment. Each breath in and out became a gift (I didn’t catch COVID, I’m just bad at cardio). When I paid attention to it, the air tasted crisp. I took the time to savor it. I inhaled it deeply into portions of my lungs I haven’t felt in years.

I no longer zoned out while running, going through the motions for the sake of fitness. Instead, I focused on my breathing and form. As stray thoughts came in – that case from three days ago, a problem to deal with in the field – I examined them and went back to focusing on my breathing.

It wasn’t a sudden change, but proper self-care rarely is. After a few weeks, I felt it. I felt excited again about our drive to improve healthcare in LA county. I felt energized to work on health policy, and I didn’t listen to “it’s been the worst damn day since yesterday” as an anthem. (It’s still an epic song, though.) Life was good again.

You might be thinking, how predictable: He lives in California and practices mindfulness. But let it be known that I do not burn sage, and I do not use essential oils (aside from treatment regimens for anosmia), and my food is genetically modified (studies show it saves the environment and lives). The science behind the effects of mindfulness and meditation is sound. I’ve added this to my strength training and started daily meditation, and I feel better than I have in years.

If you feel like something is “off” within you or want to improve your inner self, consider giving mindfulness a try. If you really want to go at it, as Kabat-Zinn says, “get your ass on the cushion” and meditate. I promise you it will be an amazing journey.

As you go forth to save more lives, please take the time to remember that your life is precious too. You were amazing this past year. It’s time to take a moment to heal.   

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