By Janice D Bennett, PhD
You are probably someone who always wanted to be in medicine and to help people, and you love your job. By following your dream, you accepted the reality that there would inevitably be times when your expertise would really be needed. Well, that time has come.
You have been called upon to work the frontlines against the Coronavirus.
You probably have already experienced sleepless nights and spent hours worrying about some of the patients you previously treated. However, the reality of caring for patients during this time of Covid-19 brings along with it a new threat, this time to your own health and safety – the acute awareness that the next patient infected with Covid-19 could be you.
How do you deal with this threat to your own health and wellness, while continuing to maintain your dedication to heal your patients? Well, the answer starts with a word that now has an extra dimension of meaning – self care.
Here are 5 self-care strategies that healthcare workers can engage in during Covid-19:
Creating “compartments” for all of your jobs and responsibilities helps reduce stress and increase efficiency. By focusing on one activity at a time, productivity is enhanced and contributes to feelings of gratification and accomplishment
The best way to compartmentalize is by maintaining a calendar. This calendar should include the schedule of shifts when you will be on-duty, as well as when you perform other work-related activities, such as reading medical research, catching up on relevant updates, and reviewing procedural and administrative changes, etc.
Experienced healthcare workers know that thinking about patients and their jobs outside of work hours is not just unproductive, but also increases stress and contributes to burn-out. Unless you are on-call, it’s important to make sure you block off times when you are on, and when you are off.
2. Enhance Downtime
Downtime can be a precious commodity for a healthcare professional, and so it needs not only to be protected, but enhanced. Once you’ve compartmentalized your schedule, it’s important to be proactive in engaging in activities that are not just relaxing, but also meaningful and ultimately life-enhancing. This can include scheduling times for exercise and spending quality time with family members – cooking, playing games, watching relaxing videos and shows, etc. Doing everything you can to replenish your energy alone and with others is essential for doing your job, maintaining your physical and mental health, and working with utmost focus and concentration.
3. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
It may be easy to think you can get by with less sleep when you’re involved in resolving a crisis, but the reality is that adrenaline can only take a person so far. This source of fuel easily runs out, and can potentially contribute to compromising your immune system and make you more vulnerable to infection. While you may have been able to catch a cat-nap on shifts before, working the Covid-19 crisis may not give you many similar opportunities.
Therefore, be sure to schedule sleep and to engage in proper “sleep hygiene” – this means setting an actual bedtime, putting away devices half an hour before; using earplugs and/or sound machines to drown out noise; and using eyemasks and room darkening shades to block out distracting light.
Tell everyone around you about your sleep schedule so they can provide support and encouragement, especially when you don’t think you’re tired – because you really are!
4. Be Careful with Self-Medicating
The use of various medications and substances can run the gamut from innocuous to dangerous. And healthcare professionals have unfortunately been known to self-prescribe medications that eventually go awry.
Be careful about the amount of caffeine you are drinking, and if you have a legitimate prescription for focusing stimulants, then take only as directed or even intermittently.
Sleep aides have the potential of becoming addictive, so in addition to practicing good sleep hygiene, be mindful of the amount you are taking and how often. Whether prescription or OTC, see if you can go a night without taking anything, or take sporadically.
The same approach applies to the use of relaxing or sedating substances – whether it be wine, beer, liquor or even cannabis. Imbibe only after your shift. Try to drink no more than two servings/glasses of wine or alcohol, and preferably with food so it can be metabolized more efficiently (and prevent potential hangovers). Dosing of cannabis via any transport method can be complicated, so be sure to give yourself enough time to fully come down from your high before returning to work.
5. Be Optimistic
Getting through this Covid-19 crisis is going to require courage to overcome fear, and faith to overcome the unknown. Believing in the benefit of your efforts is a crucial component of victory. Yes, there will be casualties, but in the end, the majority will survive, and hopefully, everyone will start making positive changes in their lives as a result -- for themselves, their families, their profession, and for the planet.
Victory can start with you. By modeling courage, faith and optimism, you elevate the fight to a higher level – where engaging in self-care, even by adopting the smallest of changes, can make a big difference in the world. Don’t default to a lack of mindfulness and habit – activate the potential to be the hero you know you’ve always wanted to be. Because you can do it!
Janice D Bennett PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist located in New York City. For over 30 years, she has worked with people struggling with anxiety, depression, mood disorders, trauma and PTSD, and work- and family-related issues. She can be reached at email@example.com.