Staying strong in a time of stress is a key life skill. This is the time to nurture it.

The front line of a pandemic can be a hazardous place, and not just for patients.  Healthcare workers must walk a fine line between offering compassionate care and avoiding infection, saving lives while isolated from family and friends – and this can take a toll on your mental health.

‘The most basic definition of psychological distress, or stress as most people know it, is to be stretched beyond the resources at your disposal,’ says Dr Elzabé Peters, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Potchefstroom.  ‘In other words, to have more demands than resources available to meet them, be they time, money, food or physical and emotional energy.’

‘It follows that any crisis that places demands on service providers to work longer hours, or to tend to a higher patient load, will sap their resources of time and physical and emotional energy.  If this cycle continues for a prolonged period, resources become depleted and functioning suffers.’

The result?  Dr Peters says it’s not unusual for people in this position to develop an adjustment disorder in reaction to an overwhelming stressor.  ‘This is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.  But, although the reaction is normal, it may be extremely uncomfortable, just like a rash to an irritant.’

To manage this response, try these six steps, she says.

  1. Remind yourself that the crisis will pass.  When you know that a dire situation will have an end, it enables you to cope with it more effectively.
  2. Understand that the situation may demand of you more than you can give.  Accept that you may not be able to help everyone but focus on doing the best for the person you’re dealing with at this moment.
  3. Acknowledge your feelings as part of a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.  You are not going crazy.  It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and emotional in the midst of chaos and suffering.
  4. Take good physical care of yourself.  Eat regularly and sleep when you have the opportunity.  This strengthens your immune system and allows you to be more effective when on duty.
  5. Make use of domestic support systems to take the responsibility of childcare, meal preparation, or household chores from you during this time of crisis.
  6. Make time for your emotional/spiritual wellbeing.  As little as 10 minutes a day of meditating or journaling goes a very long way.
  7. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing stress.  It’s crucial for leaders in management roles to understand this.  ‘Not everyone copes in the same way,’ explains Dr Lombard.  ‘While some people need to talk, others become more dysfunctional when talking about emotions while coping with the crisis.  Allow people to choose which way they prefer to cope.  Running a compulsory group therapy session once or twice a week at the end of a shift could perhaps be of benefit.  The people who want to talk then have the opportunity, but those who don’t can just listen and relate to what others are saying.’