The year 2020 has been extremely tough for healthcare workers. They’re exhausted and overworked—especially as staffing shortages become ever more critical—and they have endured months upon months of traumatic stress.
But Diana Hendel, PharmD, and Mark Goulston, MD say healthcare workers aren’t doomed to suffer until the pandemic is over (whenever that may be).
Healthy habits are the key to building resilience, preventing burnout, and starting to heal right now.
“Healthcare providers need to embrace proven self-care habits during these tough times,” says Dr. Hendel, coauthor along with Dr. Goulston of Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020, ISBN: 978-0-7852-4462-2, $17.99). “Don’t think of them as tasks to check off a ‘to do’ list. They’re intentional practices you turn to every day to stay calm, grounded, and present.”
Why Cope When You Can Heal? shares therapeutic approaches that are currently used to effectively treat traumatic stress and introduces powerful exercises to help you move through the trauma and further your healing. Read on to learn the habits that will sustain your mental and physical health and help you thrive during COVID and beyond.
Start with sleep, diet, and exercise. They are your foundation. Arrange your life so you can prioritize these things. Go to bed early enough to get the rest you need. Cook a batch of healthy meals at once so you can have several lunches and dinners ready when you are. Make time to exercise; you will feel physically and emotionally better when you move your body several times a week.
“Be sure to avoid too much alcohol and caffeine during this time,” says Dr. Hendel. “It can be hard to abstain when you’re under frequent stress, but these seemingly harmless crutches can cause problems quicker than you might think.”
Establish a “grounding practice.” Grounding is a great way to reduce anxiety and arrive in the here and now. Do it morning and evening as a way to begin and end the day. (It’s also a good way to recenter yourself when you feel triggered by upsetting memories or flashbacks.) When used daily, grounding will help you remain centered, grateful, and in touch with your calling to care for others. NOTE: Please see the attached tip sheet for a basic grounding exercise to try.
Meditate daily. A simple meditation routine can help you maintain a more relaxed state overall and manage anxiety and stress. If you’re new to meditation, try not to overthink it. Simply find a quiet moment, close your eyes, and begin slowly breathing in and out. Focus on your breathing but allow your emotions and thoughts to rise and flow through you naturally. Don’t fret if you can only meditate for a few minutes at a time. Start small and add more time when you are ready.
“You can also use your meditation time to do a quick body scan,” says Dr. Goulston. “Start at the top of your head and intentionally scan your entire body, noticing any areas where you may be holding onto extra tension. Mindfully release any tension you become aware of.”
Stay in touch with family and friends. This can be tricky, especially for healthcare workers who may need to quarantine even from immediate family members. Use services like Zoom or Skype (or an old-fashioned telephone call) to stay connected to those you love. You need social support right now, and a fifteen-minute catchup session each day—or even just a few times a week—will support your mental and emotional health.
Make room for hobbies, laughter, and lightheartedness. Daily joy is more important than you may realize. “You might find it difficult or even guilt-inducing to laugh and enjoy your life when experiencing death or the extreme anguish of others at work, but making time for joy is crucial to your own wellbeing,” says Dr. Hendel. “Remember that you can’t help others when you yourself are not okay. Give yourself permission to get absorbed in your favorite hobbies, or watch your favorite lighthearted talk show, or laugh with abandon at your favorite funny movie.”
Become aware of what “triggers” you. Do not be surprised if certain sights, sounds, or events cause feelings anxiety, fear, or panic. You have been through a lot, and it’s not unusual for events in the present to trigger feelings of distress or revive painful traumatic memories. For example, if a siren wailing makes your heart pound or causes you to gasp for breath, it could be reminding you of the traumas of COVID-19. It’s important to learn what triggers you so are not caught off guard. NOTE: Please see the attached tip sheet for a distress relief exercise to try whenever you feel triggered.
Express your feelings every day. You are bound to have a number of feelings and emotions come up as a result of your work during COVID-19. Make time each day to regularly express how you feel to another person, if possible. It might be a coworker, a partner, or a friend outside of work. You can also record your thoughts and feelings in a journal if you wish. NOTE: Please see the attached tip sheet to try the “12 Words Exercise,” which is great for identifying and processing your feelings.
Let the tears fall. It is normal and natural to cry when you are surrounded by the tragedies of COVID-19. Of course, you may not be able to break down in the middle of your shift, but don’t suppress your tears longer than necessary. Give yourself time to have a good cry and let the pain out. Afterward you will likely feel revived and capable of returning to work.
Establish a “fire team” to support you at work. “If your organization doesn’t have a support group for its employees, consider starting an informal meeting so you and your coworkers can get together and talk about what you are going through,” says Dr. Goulston. “This group is called your ‘fire team’—the colleagues fighting by your side in the battle against COVID-19. You can meet with them for a few minutes every day or set up a longer weekly meeting. This gives you a community to share about your mental and emotional struggles, and yes, your triumphs too!”
Let people know exactly what you need (and what you don’t) when you’re stressed out. The people in your life want to support you, but they may not know how to go about it—especially when your anxiety or stress levels are high. For example, tell family members, your partner, and co-workers that you prefer they give you a few minutes of privacy when you’re visibly struggling, and ask them not to bombard you with chit chat until you’ve had a chance to calm down. It is much easier when everyone is on the same page.
Consider checking in with a pro. It can be helpful to talk out what you’re experiencing with a trained professional at least once. Use the resources you have available to you to set up a confidential check-in either with your EAP, a social worker, a mental health professional, or a chaplain and discuss how you are doing. You might find that this is very beneficial to your wellbeing and decide to make it a routine practice.
“COVID won’t last forever, but while it is here you can use these habits as a stabilizing anchor,” concludes Dr. Hendel. “Later when the pandemic is a thing of the past, you will have a set of practices and tools to keep you strong and healthy as you continue to move forward.”