Don’t let stress get you down

Here are some evidence-based strategies to help frontline healthcare workers build resilience.

A national lockdown.  A phased reopening.  A whole range of models and projections trying to predict how an unprecedented virus will impact our future.  We’re surrounded by questions to which it feels like no one has the answers.

It might not feel like it, but you do!

There are many factors that will play into how you will react at a time like this, explains Johann van Greunen, a specialist wellness counsellor and reiki master in Durbanville, Cape Town.  ‘Your state of health and mind, your emotional wellbeing and support, your mental wellness, spiritual wellness and whether you have caring and nurturing relationships – these are all crucial factors.’

What happens when these unravel?  ‘Tenseness, irritability and emotional reactions, like anger outbursts, can surface.  They’re all signs that a person’s coping abilities are being eroded,’ he says.  ‘If these aren’t managed, chronic fatigue, illness and mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress, can start surfacing.’

And what can be done to prevent these effects?  ‘It’s crucial that these emotions are managed.  In order for the body to recover a sense of homeostasis, you need to employ the tools and techniques available to you to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which shuts down during the stress response.’

Steps to deal with stress:

●      Be still.  ‘Mindfulness meditation isn’t a technique, it’s a lifestyle, teaching us focused and deep breathing.  This helps to deal with stress and calm the mind; it brings down blood pressure, it sharpens and focuses our senses, and much more.’

●      Move.  Yes, every day.  ‘I highly recommend yoga, as it’s a combination of mindfulness, movement, and exercise and is a highly restorative practice.  Various online classes are available, suitable for all levels and preferences.’

●      Eat well.  ‘This will mean different things for different people, but one principle stands out: learn to listen to what your body needs.’

●      Journal.  ‘Writing down your experiences of the day is a wonderful way to name, externalise, and contain a range of sometimes confusing emotions.’

●      Do something creative.  ‘This can be baking, drawing, painting, crafting, knitting or gardening – anything that feeds the soul.’

●      Focus on the positive.  Focus on what you can positively influence and control, such as the manner in which you engage with others and the types of conversations you are participating in (i.e. reframe from having negative conversations that will leave you feeling miserable and depleted).

●      Reach out.  ‘Take care of your primary relationships.  Build your support network.’

●      Don’t judge.  ‘Be kind, gentle, and patient with yourself.’

It can be useful to implement these steps as a structure, within a unit or throughout a hospital.  ‘During times of uncertainty and trauma, managers have an immensely important task in providing guidance and support to their teams,’ says Van Greunen.  ‘It’s extremely important that leaders and managers support their teams during this time with empathy and compassion.  Keep in mind that managers themselves are working amid a challenging and sometimes confusing situation, which makes it difficult to decide how to direct their teams.  That’s why it’s essential that they take care of their own needs with compassion.’