Stress coping tips for providers during COVID-19

By Melanie Fox, PsyD and Carolyn Turek, PhD. 

Any time of uncertainty commonly leads to increased stress, and the COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect definition of uncertainty. Things are changing daily, we are learning in real time, and we cannot predict with certainty exactly what is going to happen.

What we do know with certainty though is that if providers don’t practice self-care during these tumultuous times, you cannot be as effective for patients, your team and your family.  

While it can feel impossible to engage in self-care right now, it is truly imperative as stress can easily rise to traumatic and toxic levels and this biochemical reaction can cause a range of physical and mental health problems.

Read on for some tips that can easily be worked into your day – and can make a big difference.

Common stress responses

First, it’s important to understand what happens to our bodies when we experience overwhelming stress. Humans often respond in these four characteristic ways:

  • Flight: We may feel trapped, fidgety, tense in our bodies, numb in our extremities, or experience urges to leave work or cancel patients.

  • Fight: We may feel irritable or agitated. Our jaw can tighten. We may grind our teeth. We can glare, show anger in our voice, or feel a burning sensation in our chest or stomach.
  • Freeze: We often experience a sense of dread, hoping for cancellations, difficulty making decisions, feel our heart pounding, or notice ourselves checking out.
  • Avoidance: We may feel calm and composed, but anxiety manifests through impatience, irritability, short-temper, tense muscles, changes in sleep or eating patterns, and/or increased use of substances.

Tips to help in the short term

To remove yourself from the fight/flight/freeze/avoidance response, try to focus your mind and body to the present moment. Grounding exercises can help. Here are a few exercises to try:

  1. 5-4-3-2-1: Name to yourself five things you see, four things you feel, three sounds you hear, two things you smell and one thing you taste.
  2. Box breathing: Breathe in counting to four with each inhalation and count backward from four with each exhalation. Do this 4 times.
  3. Get moving: Take a quick walk before starting your next task.

These exercises can be helpful when you notice yourself reacting from a stressed place, or when you notice patients, families or other health professionals responding to you in ways that feel unhelpful or stress-inducing.

Tips to build  wellness

While no one will ever be completely stress-proof, building wellness can strengthen our ability to withstand stress.

One way to do this is by focusing on the meaning behind our work. When things seem uncontrollable or stressful, it often helps to reflect on our values and why our work is important to us.

Practicing consistent self-care is another way to build wellness. Self-care is actually patient care. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Take deep breaths.
  • Maintain regular meals and snacks, as possible.
  • Try to get as much sleep as is possible.
  • Engage in regular physical activity.
  • Practice mindfulness.
  • Stay connected with loved ones.
  • Reduce consumption of news and social media: Studies from previous epidemics find a link between time spent on social media and increased anxiety/stress. Try to consume news at a set time from a reliable source and then try to leave it until that time the next day.
  • Try technology: Headspace, a mindfulness app, is free until the end of 2020 for anyone with a national provider number.