Self-care for Health Care Professionals Is Not Easy Right Now, But It Has Never Been More Important

Across the globe, people are being asked to stay home, in order to help flatten the curve and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, health care workers and first responders are being asked to do the exact opposite: Step into the frontlines and care for those who have already been affected.

If you’re a health care worker or first responder, there’s no way to sufficiently thank you for the sacrifices you are making right now, but we’ll continue to try. In New Orleans, a mystery writer left colorful chalk messages on the sidewalk of one of the city’s biggest hospitals. One message said, “if you’re just arriving, thank you for what you are about to do!” In Manhattan, cheers ring out from apartment towers like clockwork every night at 7 p.m., in recognition of the doctors, nurses, technicians, administrators, and custodians working in the hospitals. Similar traditions have been observed in cities across the U.S. and internationally.

We hope that these gestures show that we see you. We cannot begin to imagine the immense stress and pressure you must be feeling, but we do recognize the sacrifice that you are making. You’re taking care of parents, grandparents, siblings, and children you’ve never met before so that they can return home safely to the people who cannot imagine life without them.

During this time — and long after it’s over — we want you to remember one thing: Your well-being matters, too.

Self-care for health care professionals is more important now than ever. Here are some ways that you can prioritize your own health the same way that you’ve prioritized all of ours.

Refill your cup — literally.

Your time is spread thin right now. There are certain things, however, that you still have to do no matter what — like drinking water. We need water to survive: It acts as a lubricant for our joints, regulates our body temperature through sweat and helps to get rid of waste, according to the Mayo Clinic.

When you don’t drink enough water, it can cause dehydration — and even mild dehydration can drain your energy and make you feel tired. That’s not ideal, especially if you’re already working long hours.

How much water should you drink?

It depends on several factors, including your health, level of activity and where you live. However, the vast majority of healthy people can meet their hydration needs by simply letting thirst be their guide, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Eight, 8-ounce glasses of water a day is a reasonable goal that’s easy to remember, although some people may need more or less. Self-care for health care professionals starts by ensuring your basic needs are met.

Take a moment of pause and breathe deeply.

Many of you have probably experienced the “fight or flight” feeling your body invokes to confront or avoid danger. When this stress response is called on appropriately, it can help us rise to the occasion.

However, when this “fight or flight” response is constantly invoked, it can cause health problems, such as high blood pressure. It can also impact our immune system, making us more susceptible to illness, according to Harvard Medical School.

One way to find calm in the storm? Deep breathing.

It can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure. Focusing on the breath can also help you disengage from distracting thoughts so that you can focus on the task at hand.

Develop a buddy system.

During a crisis, it’s common for responders to experience stress. When that stress builds up, it can lead to burnout (extreme exhaustion or overwhelm) or secondary traumatic stress (also known as “compassion fatigue”), which is caused by exposure to another person’s traumatic experiences.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue:

  • Feeling isolated
  • Anxiety
  • Physical ailments
  • Disrupted sleep

Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

It is preventable and treatable, but — left unaddressed — it can have an impact on your physical and mental health.

Recognizing the signs of burnout or compassion fatigue in ourselves isn’t easy. That’s why the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the CDC recommend “The Buddy System.”

What does this system look like?

It entails partnering up with another staff member and sharing in the responsibility of one another’s safety and well-being. This includes monitoring one another for stress, checking in on one another’s workload, and encouraging breaks when needed. You can also perform safety checks for each other, NIOSH says, ensuring personal protective equipment is put on and taken off correctly. Talk to one another about your experiences, acknowledge difficult situations and celebrate wins, like how you helped a dad overcome coronavirus and return home to his two young children.

If you observe any symptoms of burnout or compassion fatigue, encourage your buddy to talk to their team lead, who can direct them to the right resources for help.

Don’t be afraid to accept or ask for help.

Your support system is there for a reason. They care about you, your well-being, and the well-being of your family. Don’t be afraid to accept help when people offer it — or to ask for help when you need it.

This is especially important for those who are actively treating COVID-19 patients and have decided to self-isolate from their families. Pulmonary and critical care doctor Tim Cheng of Orange County, Calif., told NBC News that he has moved into a tent in his family’s garage, in order to reduce the likelihood of exposure to his wife, young daughter and his in-laws. One nurse practitioner moved completely out of her home and into a co-worker’s apartment because she was worried about exposure to her family.

You are making sacrifices right now that we can’t even begin to imagine. If someone offers to order groceries for you via Instacart and have them delivered to your doorstep or to mow your lawn for the foreseeable future, by all means, let them. You deserve to be cared for the same way that you’re caring for others right now — and people want to help in any way they can, too.

Keep up with your own medical appointments and treatment plans.

If you have a health condition, continue to follow your treatment plan and schedule follow-up appointments with your doctor. This includes treatment (such as therapy or medications) for a diagnosed mental health condition. Fortunately, many psychologists and therapists have already moved to telehealth, which allows you to meet with them remotely through video conferencing and other technologies.

As a result, you can schedule the virtual visit around your busy schedule, forgo the drive time, and attend the visit from almost anywhere. Additionally, many doctors are offering same-day appointments, which is great if you’re having a particularly low day and need to talk to a therapist.

If you’re not already engaged in teletherapy or telephonic coach support, you might consider it. These services can provide you with a sense of connection to other people outside of work, especially during a time when you might be feeling isolated from family and friends. Social connection is essential to your mental health.

Above all else, remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can — and that’s enough. Allow yourself to take breaks and set boundaries when necessary. You are essential not only to your patients, but to the people in your own life who love you. They — and we — want you to know that your needs matter just as much as everyone else’s needs do.