People working in healthcare need healthy habits and support now more than ever.
Mark Goulston, MD, and Diana Hendel, PharmD share powerful advice for healthcare workers as well as ways for friends and family members to offer much-needed support.
As COVID-19 continues to surge nationwide, stress and burnout are at all-time highs for healthcare workers. The grim realities of working in a pandemic continue to impact every part of their lives. The long-awaited arrival of a vaccine offers a faint light at the end of the tunnel, but in the meantime, workers still need to be their strongest, most resilient selves to keep fighting for their patients.
“Healthcare workers still have a lot of hard work in front of them,” 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
“The good news is there are plenty of tools and habits that can help alleviate the traumatic stress of COVID, while helping healthcare workers build resilience that will guard against burnout and benefit them for the rest of their careers.”
This toolkit from Drs. Hendel and Goulston can help healthcare workers maintain healthy habits at home and fight against traumatic stress at work. The final portion shares advice for friends and loved ones who want to support the healthcare worker in their life.
Everyday Habits for Optimal Wellbeing
Start with sleep, diet, and exercise. They are your foundation. 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 several times a week.
Meditate daily. 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 arise 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.
Stay in touch with family and friends. 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 will support your mental and emotional health.
Make room for hobbies, laughter, and lightheartedness. “Making time for joy is crucial to your own wellbeing,” says Dr. Hendel. “Give yourself permission to get absorbed in your favorite hobbies, watch a lighthearted talk show, or laugh at your favorite funny movie.”
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.
What to Do When You Feel Triggered at Work
Take a few minutes to get grounded. Grounding is a great way to reduce anxiety and arrive in the here and now. Use it anytime you feel carried away by anxious thoughts or feelings, or when you feel triggered by upsetting memories and flashbacks.
- Find a comfortable place to sit (or stand). If sitting, rest your hands on your legs. Feel the fabric of your clothing. Notice its color and texture.
- Next, bring your awareness to your body. Stretch your neck from side to side. Relax your shoulders. Tense and relax your calves. Stomp your feet.
- Look around and notice the sights, sounds, and scents around you for a few moments.
- Name fifteen to twenty things you can see. For example, the floor, a light, a desk, a sink.
- As you keep looking around, remind yourself that “The flashback or emotion I felt is in the past. Right now, at this moment, I’m safe.”
Use “box breathing” to calm yourself and heighten your concentration. Box breathing is the technique of taking slow, deep breaths. Slowly exhale your breath through your mouth to clear all the oxygen from your lungs. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for four slow counts. Hold your breath for four more slow counts. On the next four counts, exhale again through your mouth until your lungs are empty. Hold your breath again for a final slow count of four beats.
Reach for an amulet to help anchor you… Carry a small reminder of what you love about your life and focus on it if you feel triggered and need to center yourself. It might be a photo of your kids or pet, a small rock you picked up on a scenic nature hike, or a special necklace. Think of the gratitude you feel for your life whenever you look at this token.
…Or grab a human lifeline. Ideally, your workplace will have a formal support group to help you deal with the stressors of the pandemic. But if not, consider forming your own informal “fire team” consisting of the colleagues fighting by your side. Not only can this team meet a few times a week to talk through the challenges of the crisis, but you can also reach out to a member anytime you need support. And if you are feeling truly overwhelmed or desperate, reach out to your company’s EAP or contact a mental health professional.
Let your feelings out (when possible). At times you may need to step away from your duties for a few minutes and give those intense emotions some “breathing room.” Try moving to a different room so you can cry or discreetly express your feelings. Finding a private place to let the tears fall or vent for a few minutes can lighten your stress and enable you to get back to work.
Play a mind game. “If there is no way to speak to someone else and you need comfort in the moment, imagine talking to someone who loves you,” says Dr. Goulston. “Imagine that they are listening and lovingly holding and encouraging you. As you hear them talking and walking you through it, you will feel their love and belief in you. This kind of mental pep talk can be a bridge until you are able to speak your feelings to somebody in person.”
Get out of the building for a few minutes. If at all possible, try to get outside for a few minutes of fresh air. Take deep breaths, stretch your arms and legs, and take in the gifts of nature around you. And if possible find someone else who is on a break and invite them for a ten-minute walk so the two of you can blow off steam.
Tips For Loved Ones Supporting a Frontline Worker
Take on extra household duties at home. Spouses or partners can take over the primary chores of housekeeping, food preparation, and childcare.
Your loved ones can still do the tasks they are comfortable performing, but they will feel relieved to know that the burden of responsibility isn’t solely on them. Friends can also find ways to pitch in and help out. Offer to do a grocery run or treat them to delivery from their favorite takeout spot.
Plan lighthearted fun interactions during their time off. Help your loved one unplug after a long work week by keeping things lighthearted and fun. Get outdoors for a socially distanced hike. Plan a lazy day of streaming their favorite movies (think comedies or feel-good classics). If you have kids, plan a fun family project like baking a cake or making crafts.
Ask them what they need (or don’t need!) when they are stressed out. “Your loved one is facing an unusual amount of stress right now, and they may not respond as they normally would to your well-meaning attempts to help out,” says Dr. Hendel. “So, ask them directly, ‘What can I do—or avoid doing—to help when you feel anxious, stressed, triggered, or otherwise upset?’”
Make a point to really listen to them. “Listening is one of the most powerful ways you can support anyone facing the traumatic stress of working the COVID frontlines,” says Dr. Goulston. “They are likely to need an empathetic listening ear more than they need a pep talk. People in healthcare need to feel that they can let their guard down and express what might seem like ‘negative’ emotions without being talked out of their feelings. Give them a safe space to share whatever, positive or negative, is on their mind.”
Be on the lookout for changes in behavior. If your normally optimistic and upbeat loved one is struggling, there may be telltale signals that something is wrong. Some signs to watch for:
- They start having angry outbursts or temper flares.
- They start crying much more than usual.
- They isolate and avoid you and other loved ones.
- They keep saying, “I’m fine” even when it’s clear they are just putting on a cheerful face.
If you notice these or other unusual changes, encourage your loved one to talk to a mental health professional. Their workplace may have an EAP (employee assistance program) with resources for counseling and support, or they can reach out to a therapist, priest, or social worker.
“Call on these tools and habits every day, not just when you are feeling on edge or depleted,” concludes Dr. Hendel. “You will feel more in control when self-care and stress management are built into your daily routine. And never forget that you have a support system of loved ones and colleagues cheering for you and ready to step in should you need extra help.”
Dr. Mark Goulston is the coauthor of Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020) and Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, Spring 2021). He is a board-certified psychiatrist, a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA NPI, and a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. He is the creator of Theory Y Executive Coaching—which he provides to CEOs, presidents, founders, and entrepreneurs—and is a TEDx and international keynote speaker.
Dr. Diana Hendel is the coauthor of Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020) and Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, Spring 2021). She is an executive coach and leadership consultant, former hospital CEO, and author of Responsible: A Memoir, a riveting and deeply personal account of leading during and through the aftermath of deadly workplace trauma.
Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD is available in bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.