How to Offer Support to Your Local Healthcare Heroes
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the stress level, mental health and overall well-being of our healthcare providers and first responders for the past several months and will continue far after vaccines and medical treatments are in place. This ongoing pandemic is not a discreet event with a beginning and end such as a fire, hurricane, or mass violence event, so it is important to utilize skills that foster resilience and coping and emphasize regaining a sense of control and competence through all three phases (pre-, peak-, and post-trauma stress) of the pandemic response.
Recent research and personal stories of providers responding to COVID-19 have noted significant increased reports of anxiety, depression, and trauma symptoms as well as insomnia, worry about supply shortages and impending potential difficult patient care decisions, not to mention concerns about their own health and family health. What is protective in the moment, the fight or flight instinctual response to a threat, can be detrimental when it persists for long periods of time as the body reaches a point of complete exhaustion and burnout when faced with an inability to decompress.
Melissa Milanak, PhD
Clinical Assessment Advisor-National Accounts
May 18, 2020
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Below are practical strategies, proven to work, that anyone can use. As the world begins to re-open, and we face “a new normal,” the norm does not have to include long lasting distress.
Secure your own Mask first
While it is second nature for providers to put others first, it is difficult to pour from an empty cup. While it may be easiest to grab a quick snack, eat sugary foods or drink too much caffeine to stay awake, and then try to distract our thoughts and relax with alcohol to fall asleep, eating a balanced diet will moderate blood sugar changes and promote best decision making and even improve reaction time. Consider creating pre-packaged snacks and meals that you can take with you into work. Also, even if there is not much time for exercise, spending a few minutes most days doing something active, even when feeling tired, rejuvenates the mind and energizes the body. Consider a quick walk, stretching, standing instead of sitting while working at the computer or even taking the stairs to help reduce risk.
Recharge your Body, Not just your Phone
Restorative sleep, the kind where you quickly fall asleep, sleep through the night, and wake up feeling rested, is essential for frontline responders to bolster immune function, metabolism, memory, attention, focus, concentration and being able to respond quickly and effectively to challenges. While it is easy to get out of a schedule/routine working extra shifts and then sleeping in, or napping whenever you feel sleepy, or as a creative avoidance/escape, or the opposite staying up later or waking up after only a few hours to try to have a few extra minutes with family, it is healthiest to maintain a set sleep schedule 7 days a week, use the bed only for sleeping (not watching TV, reading or worrying), sleep in a dark, cold, quiet environment and utilize a wind down routine including strategies such as 4-count breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), grounding and meditation to shut off the mind and relax the body to ensure restful sleep.
Staying Connected while Staying Safe
Many essential healthcare workers have completely isolated to protect their families. Not only does this increase feelings of loneliness and sadness, but isolation also puts them at risk due to protective factors of social support. Utilize video chats, phone calls, video messages and chances to share experiences such as peer support groups plus consider sending a card or handwritten letter to brighten a mailbox filled with bills. Use this time to reach out to a friend that you have been meaning to call but life got in the way. Do not feel guilty for taking this personal time, but instead realize that you are supporting others while restoring your own mental resilience.
Let the Present be a Gift
It is easy to ruminate over the past or focus on the unknown fears of the future, but then we miss out on what is happening in the here and now. The brain is designed to create habits to save time and energy but functioning on “autopilot” sometimes means falling into the trap of fear and worry. It is important to break this cycle by actively observing and acknowledging current emotions we are experiencing and identifying what thoughts we are thinking, understanding that thoughts are just thoughts. They do not define who you are. Learning to be present, to sit with uncomfortable emotions, takes time, but growing in the ability to be mindful helps to manage emotional reactions to feel more in control while also being less self-critical and seeing ourselves in a kinder, non-judgmental way.
Being “Positive” can be a Good Thing
In a time when “positive” triggers thoughts of test results, and society tackles so many new unknowns, it is important to remember that “positive” is also a protective mindset, shift from negativity and fear to instead focus on what we can do instead of what we can’t. Look for small wins and accomplishments noting how many have recovered instead of just how many have passed. Spend time each day focused on positive activities, promoting helpful thinking and what is going well. Keeping a gratitude journal and listing personal strengths bolsters the mind’s ability to remain resilient.
Reaching out for support takes strength – it takes more courage to seek help and see that you are not alone, than it does to keep it inside until it builds and explodes.
Here is a list of resources and fact sheets that have been made available to support essential workers in healthcare and their families:
Psychological first aid: Several organizations such as the Center for Disease Control, American Red Cross, and the World Health Organization have endorsed PFA as best practice early intervention approach after large scale events. To access the free manual and training materials, click here: www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/materials/manuals/psych-first-aid.asp