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‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Part 3: PERFORM

9 May, 17 | by rlloyd

‘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.

I’ll leave you with NAVY Seal Commander Jocko Willink’s take on cognitive reframing:

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

‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Part 1: Understanding Cognitive Appraisals

5 Mar, 17 | by rlloyd

It has been an exciting period for me recently. Last month I was at the International Special Training Centre (ISTC) in Pfullendorf, Germany, where I had the honour of speaking to a group of Special Operations Combat Medics in-training from eleven nations across NATO. Staying at the base, meeting the guys, and contributing to their fantastic 26-week course was an unforgettable experience, and without a doubt my most proud achievement to date.

Why me? Last year I blogged/podcasted for St. Emlyn’s about my lively experience working in a South African Township Emergency Department, at Khayelitsha District Hospital. Luckily for me, a course faculty member from the ISTC stumbled across this work and thought I might have something to offer a group of warrior medics.

If you haven’t read the original blog, I would advise that you do before proceeding; the credibility of what follows hinges on its predecessor.

I was tasked with providing a session that tackled human performance optimisation. Through four separate 20-minute lectures, I delivered a package of strategies for ‘Building Mental Toughness’.

This post is a summary of my first lecture at the ISTC, and is the first instalment of a four-post series. I am making a call-to-arms: frontline healthcare providers must start prioritising performance optimisation strategies.

This is my ‘Mental Toughness Manifesto’.

What is Mental Toughness?Roger-Federer-of-Switzerl-007

Traditionally, it’s a term synonymous with the sports world. It is therefore often ignored or laughed off as meaningless cliché, particularly by performers in healthcare – a ‘serious’ field. In my opinion, this represents a glaring missed opportunity.

A mentally tough individual is consistently able to produce desirable performances during moments of high stress; an undeniably crucial trait for those operating in high octane environments, not least the resus room, prehospital environment, or the realm of combat.

By accurately identifying the specific components of mental toughness, we can work on strengthening it through focused training and attitude adjustments. During a stressful, high stakes scenario where a performance is immediately required, (having interrogated the literature [1]) I believe you are mentally tough if able to state the following:

“I am 100% committed”

“I feel challenged”

Commitment to one’s overall goal is critical, but should be a foregone conclusion. A trauma team leader, flight paramedic, or special operations combat medic, should be inherently committed to their job because what they do is of indisputable importance – they deal in the currency of human life. Also, they will have had to demonstrate commitment whilst climbing their respective professional ladders, via examination and selection processes. So, the first half of the battle – ‘being 100% committed’ – is the easy bit.

Feeling ‘challenged’, as opposed to feeling threatened by a stressful scenario, is more complicated. This requires confidence in one’s skillset, and a feeling of control over one’s emotional arousal.

Cognitive Appraisals

It is imperative to appreciate the nuances of acute stress, and how it influences our physiology and cognition.

When an individual is faced with a situation which threatens an important goal (like staying alive, or keeping someone else alive), an immediate two-step cognitive appraisal takes place [2, 3]:

If personal resources are deemed sufficient to meet the demands of the scenario, the ‘challenge appraisal’ ensues. One feels positively energised (‘pumped up’), there is a sense of high self-esteem, and one will view the situation as an opportunity to capture a victorious moment. It is what athletes call being ‘in the zone’. There is physiological stress via activation of the sympathetic nervous system, but control of task-specific motor skills and cognition remains intact.

If the demands outweigh available resources, a ‘threat appraisal’ takes hold. In addition to the sympathetic nervous system response, the hypothalamic-pituitary (HPA) axis activates, triggering the release of cortisol. This cortisol ‘dump’ is a relic from our days as primal hunter-gatherers. It readies the mind and body for instant, evasive action (like running away from a predator), which is, of course, suboptimal when a skilled and complex performance is immediately required.

Threat appraisals narrow our auditory and visual perception, minimise our mental ‘bandwidth’, increase our sense of fear (via its effect on the amydala), erode our short-term memory (hippocampus), and obliterate our capacity for rational judgement (prefrontal cortex) [4].

Need convincing? Watch the video below for an armchair threat appraisal…

 

The psychological literature has consistently demonstrated that high serum cortisol is associated with impaired performance, over a wide range of human pursuit [4, 5]. What becomes clear, therefore, is that performance optimisation centres around this two-step cognitive appraisal process. By using strategies to modify one’s perception of the immediate demands and available resources, we can convert threat appraisals to challenge appraisals, and in doing so, harness the power of the sympathetic nervous system, avoiding HPA axis-mediated self-sabotage.

I will propose seven strategies, over three phases of the game (the ‘practice’, ‘perform’, and ‘process’ phases), designed to favourably modify our perceptions during the cognitive appraisal process. The aim is to build the challenged mindset, resulting in a mentally tougher performer, better equipped for saving lives.

Stay tuned for the next instalment.

Robert Lloyd
@PonderingEM

References

  1. Mike Lauria. Imperturbability: William Osler, Resilience, and Redefining Mental Toughness by Mike Lauria. EMCrit Blog. Published on February 3, 2016. Accessed on February 24th 2017. Available at [https://emcrit.org/blogpost/imperturbability-william-osler-resilience-and-redefining-mental-toughness/].
  2. Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kelsey, R. M., & Leitten, C. L. (1993). Subjective, physiological, and behavioral effects of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 248-260.
  3. LeBlanc, V.R., The effects of acute stress on performance: implications for health professions education. Acad Med, 2009. 84(10 Suppl): p. S25-33.
  4. 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/].
  5. How stress affects your brain – Madhumita Murgia, TED Ed

*This post has also been published on the Pondering EM blog.

How Junior Doctors Think: A Guide for Reflective Practice

19 Oct, 16 | by rlloyd

how-do-junior-doctors-thinkl_

In the UK, junior doctors will rotate through emergency medicine in their second year post-graduation (Foundation Year 2). They’re granted autonomy to make independent decisions and ‘own’ patients for the first time.

Elsewhere in the hospital, a junior’s role is largely secretarial, and generally within the confines of ‘normal working hours’. In the ED, the hours are brutal, the pace is relentless, and the sudden spike in responsibility ED is daunting. The learning curve is steep, but rewarding.

‘My first shift in the ED was the first time I felt like a real doctor.’

Perhaps the most unique element is the density of decision-making. Each shift serves up a broad menu of undifferentiated patients ‘fresh’ from the community, often requiring multiple investigations/interventions. When you consider the wider landscape of an ageing population, over-burdened health service, and the much maligned 4-hour target, it’s an undeniably tough job for rookies; a pressure-cooker workplace that’s fertile ground for misdiagnosis and clinical error.

Therefore, in the interests of patient safety (and junior doctors overall wellbeing) it’s important to understand the mechanisms by which junior doctors collect/process information, and make decisions. Otherwise known as ‘clinical reasoning’.

Published in the EMJ in June 2016, Adams et al have qualitatively investigated clinical reasoning in junior doctors rotating through the ED for the first time. Thirty-seven doctors were interviewed and took part in focus groups. Questions and discussion were based around retrospective recall of two cases (one straightforward and one difficult case).

The authors used ‘dual cognition theory’ (DCT) as a framework. DCT describes two distinctive cognitive approaches to decision-making: ‘Type 1’ thinking (T1) is automatic and intuitive; ‘Type 2’ (T2) is deliberate and analytical.

This system was, of course, pioneered by Daniel Kahnemen in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ (essential reading). Below is a video which provides a useful visual explanation.

Key findings from the paper:

  1. There are 3 phases of clinical reasoning in junior doctors – each is briefly explained below, but for more complete explanations please read the original paper.
  2. During all 3 phases, both thinking pathways (T1 and T2) were working in parallel.

*Please note: indented sentences in italics are my own interpretation of the research, not actual quotes from the data.

Phase 1: Case Framing

Initially, a decision needs to made whether to go into clerking mode (i.e. systematic enquiry) or ‘resuscitation’ mode (call for help, ABC approach etc).

The information processed to make this decision are clues from the patient demographics, triage note and ‘end-of-the-bed-o-gram’.

Phase 2: Evolving Reasoning

The next phase involves establishing a diagnosis. This happened in two ways:

1) Diagnosis instantly recognised (T1 predominant)

Usually from a single cue in the assessment.

‘This patient has right iliac fossa pain. It’s probably acute appendicitis.’

These reflex diagnoses are then interrogated for error via:

  • Screening for ‘red flag’ features
  • Diagnostic timeout’ to organise thoughts
    • Reflection whilst writing patient notes
    • Informal discussion/presentation to a colleague
  • Begin another task, allow opportunity for spontaneous thought (passive diagnostic timeout)

2) Diagnosis not recognised, further analysis commences (T2 predominant)

With no immediate diagnosis reached, ‘hypothetico-deductive reasoning’ is employed. This is where multiple possible hypotheses are generated, and then the history, physical examination, and investigations are used to test these hypotheses, with a view to eliminating them one-by-one.

The ‘SOCRATES’ mnemonic is a useful tool for challenging hypotheses in chest pain patients.

‘Site? Onset? Character? Radiation? Associated symptoms? Timing? Exacerbating/relieving factors? Severity?’

Ongoing observation is also employed to test diagnostic hypotheses, and to screen for an evolving clinical scenario.

‘The inflammatory markers are higher than I thought they’d be. This patient is likely to be septic. Let’s start IV antibiotics and refer to the medics.’

Phase 3: Ongoing Uncertainty

This was predictably common in an inexperienced cohort of doctors, and dealt with via:

  • Delaying discharge and continuing to observe
  • Simplifying the overall decision: ‘is this patient too unwell to go home?’
  • Sharing responsibility
    • With seniors
    • With peers via informal discussion
    • With patients via safety netting

Three points I’ve taken from the paper…

1) Inexperience can lead to ‘misframing’

T1 judgement was the dominant thinking pathway during ‘case framing’, particularly when it came to first impressions – a ‘gut-feeling’ assessment of acuity.

A lack of experience might prevent juniors from picking up on subtleties (e.g. sweating, mild agitation), or get falsely reassured by certain details (e.g. normal vital signs) that a senior doctor would not, and ‘misframe’ the patient’s level of acuity. Clearly, this has the potential to be detrimental to patient outcomes.

For this reason, focused reflection on this crucial phase of the assessment via case-based discussion with a senior colleague is critical. It will encourage juniors to gain some insight into how their own intuitive thoughts play a prominent role, and perhaps encourage them to interrogate those thoughts for biases.

‘Did you make any assumptions about this patient before seeing them?’

‘Were there any clues or triggers when you first saw them that changed how you felt about the case?’

‘Can you think of any other clues that might subtly point to the patient being more unwell than the triage note suggests?’

2) Diagnostic time-outs should be encouraged

It was established that junior doctors would utilise diagnostic time-outs whilst writing notes or via informally presenting to peers. This is an important part of the clinical reasoning process, particularly in complex patients. It can safeguard against premature ‘closure’ of a case (i.e. jumping to conclusions, and then sticking with them incorrectly) .

Again, this part of the process needs to be reflected on, so that it’s utility is appreciated.

‘It was when I was writing the notes about the 68 year-old male that I thought had renal colic, that the possibility of ruptured AAA came into my head. It’s a useful moment to think about the case.’

Diagnostic timeouts should be encouraged by higher ups, despite being potentially time-consuming, and particularly if the shop floor is manned heavily by junior doctors (a not-uncommon scenario). Despite the overburdened and target-driven climate of UK  emergency medicine, departments must avoid falling into the trap of pushing their staff to work faster. Patients are safer when junior doctors are given the chance to slow down and think.

3) Juniors should be given protected time for case follow-up

The transient nature of our patient encounters in the ED can lead to an ‘out of site, out of mind’ culture, where we fail to follow-up uncertain or particularly interesting cases. Again, this is re-enforced by the pressure to work quickly. This represents a glaring missed opportunity for learning, and the lack of diagnostic feedback potentially leads to the propagation of flawed clinical reasoning, particularly in inexperienced doctors.

Perhaps juniors should be given protected time to follow-up on cases they’ve seen (read discharge summaries/visit ward/call patient at home if discharged). They could then log this process, and formally reflect on notable cases with a supervisor.

This paper has highlighted that junior doctors have a tendency to make judgements on single cues, as opposed to pattern recognition, and can draw premature conclusions from insufficient clinical information. There is no doubt that regular feedback on real cases will serve as a powerful tool to improve clinical reasoning. It will gradually nudge them towards the realm of expertise.

Much like the encouragement of diagnostic timeouts, the key is likely to be departmental culture change. This will require brave consultants and senior nurses.

Final Thoughts

This paper should serve as a guide for junior doctors (and their supervisors) for more focused, effective reflective practice.

It’s not just about reflecting on the pathology encountered and decisions made, it’s also about the clinical reasoning process that led to those decisions. The journey is just as important as the destination. Junior doctors should be reflecting on how they think.

Additionally, departments should strive to create a healthy environment for regular reflective practice, and not to prioritise targets over the development of junior doctors clinical reasoning skills.

The Paper

Clinical reasoning of junior doctors in emergency medicine: a grounded theory study
E Adams, C GoyderC HeneghanL BrandR Ajjawi
Emerg Med J emermed-2015-205650
Published Online First: 23 June 2016 doi:10.1136/emermed-2015-205650

Many thanks to Dr. Emily Adams, the primary author, for her assistance in the creation of this blog post.

Robert Lloyd
@PonderingEM

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