Managing one’s emotions as a clinician

Which of the following is the most appropriate first strategy to respond to a patient’s negative emotions like anger and sadness?

a) Avoid showing any emotion to the patient
b) Offer additional treatments to demonstrate you hear their concerns and want to help even if not medically indicated.
c) State the positive aspects of their situation.
d) Validate the patient’s experiences by naming their emotions.

The correct answer is d

Validate the patient’s experiences by naming their emotions. Expressing the affect of the patient can help convey that the practitioner is listening, and can convey empathy. This can be accomplished either as a statement, “you seem really sad given everything that is going on,” or as a question, “Given everything that is going on, are you sad?”

Offering additional treatments (b) and medical resources may attenuate the underlying emotions temporarily. But, the nidus of suffering will continue and may get worse as the treatments offered fail to work.

Showing emotions (a) such as tears with sadness can often help demonstrate physician compassion and empathy. Most patients appreciate certain displays of emotions. The expression of emotion is acceptable as long as the focus of therapeutic intervention does not shift away from the patient: it is inappropriate for a practitioner to lose all control of their emotions in front of patients.

Although reframing the experiences and highlighting the positive aspects of a situation (c) can be helpful in some circumstances, it is not a clear first-step response. Trying to fix the problem without acknowledging and addressing the underlying emotion may exacerbate the situation and further alienate the patient.

FAST FACTS AND CONCEPTS #203: Managing one’s emotions as a clinician