Nashville, TN - After a year of fighting COVID-19, no one doubts the toughness, drive, or dedication of healthcare workers. But the pandemic has still taken a crushing toll on our frontline heroes. Though many put on a brave face, their stress levels are at an all-time high, say, Diana Hendel, PharmD, and Mark Goulston, MD. And suppose you’re caught in the grip of COVID-related stress. In that case, it’s better to take decisive action at the moment than to ignore it until it escalates into something more serious.
9 Easy Ways to Stop Stress in the Moment
“No matter how much you pride yourself on staying calm under pressure, it’s important to mitigate stress, especially when you are in the middle of your shift and can’t leave,” says Diana Hendel, PharmD, coauthor along with Mark Goulston, MD, 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).
“No one thrives while they are in perpetual survival mode,” adds Dr. Goulston. “Constantly feeling afraid, exhausted, and overwhelmed is dangerous and puts you at risk for burnout—something neither you nor our community can afford right now.”
The authors say every healthcare worker should have a tool kit of “stress stoppers” at their fingertips. For example:
Do frequent self “check-ins” to recognize when your stress levels are rising. When you’re busy, and under pressure to perform, it’s easy to go on “autopilot.” Therefore, periodically pause and do a quick self-assessment throughout the day. Consider your emotional state (Do I feel friendly and engaged, or edgy and aggressive?) as well as your physical state (Is my body calm and at ease, or is it holding onto tension?).
“Take 20 or 30 seconds to scan your body and identify areas that may be holding onto tension or stress,” says Dr. Hendel. “For example, you might be carrying tension in your jaw or shoulders. When you notice an area that is tense, gently release the tension. Over time it should become easier to recognize when stress begins to take hold—and to do something about it.”
Ground yourself when you start feeling overwhelmed. 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 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 15-20 things you can see, such as the floor, a light, a desk, and 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.”
Pause and take a few deep breaths. We tend to hold our breath whenever we are stressed, but this only exacerbates feelings of anxiety and panic. Instead, use “box breathing” to calm yourself and heighten your concentration. Box breathing is the technique of taking slow, deep, full breaths. Here’s a tutorial for when you’re feeling triggered.
Slowly exhale your breath through your mouth. Consciously focus on clearing 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 something that anchors you in the present moment. 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 unique necklace. Think of the gratitude you feel for your life whenever you look at this token.
Keep something that makes you laugh nearby. Humor is a great way to alleviate stress. Tape a clip of a funny cartoon to your work area or carry a small notebook with jokes that make you laugh every time you read them.
Use calming affirmations to give you strength and peace. Written positive statements can give you a lift when you feel yourself sinking. If self-talk is not for you, imagine a supportive other saying these to you in your mind’s eye. A few examples:
- I am great at my job, and my training and skills are empowering.
- I feel energized and ready for anything the day has in store for me.
- I accept myself as I am. I am enough.
- I am safe at this moment.
Let your feelings out (when possible). At times you may find you need to step away from your duties for a few minutes and give those intense emotions some “breathing room.” Try to move to a different room so you can cry or discreetly express your feelings. Sometimes you need to release the stress that’s built up in your body, and 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 at 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 can speak your feelings to somebody in person.”
Head outdoors 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 10-minute walk so the two of you can blow off steam.
Don’t just turn to these strategies when you feel stress or anxiety rising in your mind or body. Intentionally practice them daily—even if you are feeling calm and in control. Stress management is a skill you must work at until it becomes a natural part of your life.
“Managing stress is a key to resilience and a valuable life skill,” concludes Dr. Hendel. “If you can learn to control your stress levels during a pandemic, you will be more than prepared to meet and conquer other challenges further down the road.”