Brian Smith: Pet The Dog

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Sometimes, it's just you versus you. When that happens, Brian Smith has a way to dispense with the negativity.

It feels like I’m carrying a lot of baggage even though there’s no flight to catch.

Learning is part of life. Unfortunately, this means painful lessons are also part of life. I’ve noticed some of these lessons are bubbling up years later, in very different circumstances.

I recently phrased something poorly during a practice patient encounter for medical school. This was a low-stakes exercise. I misspoke to an actor, not a patient. But I still noticed my heart racing and felt thoughts of inadequacy welling up. Why was my emotional reaction disproportionate to such a simple mistake? I realized many of these negative thoughts were echoes I’ve had since middle school, when I learned to be hypervigilant with my words so that I wouldn’t stick out.

I needed a way to deal with old, unproductive thoughts resurfacing. Here’s an exercise that works for me:

First, I locate the pain in my body. Sometimes it’s a headache between my eyes. Other times it’s a lump in my throat. I think of these places as claustrophobic caves.

Then I picture the thought process causing me so much grief. I visualize it as a dog, so well-intentioned but trapped in this cave, panicking.

I take a deep breath and remember that this thought is here for a reason. It’s just trying to help, because at one point it did. Now it’s trying to protect me from a threat that doesn’t exist anymore.

I pet the dog and say, “thank you so much for being there when I needed you.”

With each deep breath in, I imagine pushing on the walls of that cave. I make it bigger, breath by breath.

Slowly, the dog calms down. The pain and panic fade.

With a Perspective, I’m Brian Smith.

Brian Smith is a first-year medical student at Stanford.