Health care workers routinely respond to demanding and unforeseen medical emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, they are at risk for psychological symptoms, such as emotional exhaustion, depression, anxiety and burnout. Keystone Internal Medicine’s Dr. Kerry Whitelock has some advice to combat these stressful times. The following ten practices can help frontline health care workers thrive during the upcoming months of the pandemic.
- Breathe. Studies show that deep breathing can improve mood and decrease stress by lowering pulse and salivary gland cortisol, which is a hormone that increases under stress. Try inhaling for four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, and exhaling for four seconds.
- Go outside. People who visit parks or spend time outdoors report higher levels of stress reduction as measured by decreased levels of cortisol, worries and demands, and increased levels of joy.
- Exercise. Monitoring the number of steps you take each day counts! In fact, last year a study reported that participants who used smartphone apps and activity trackers added 1,800 steps a day.
- Eat fruit and vegetables. One study found that adults who ate five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day lowered stress by 14% compared to adults who ate zero to four servings a day. Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that reduce inflammation, which eases stress levels.
- Hydrate. It has been shown that mild dehydration can increase cortisol levels, which increases anxiety. Aim to drink 2.5 liters of fluid a day for proper hydration.
- Get enough sleep. The American Psychological Association reported that American adults sleep 6.7 hours a night on average, which is less than the seven to nine recommended hours. 21% of adults who do not get enough sleep report feeling more stressed, and 40% report feeling overwhelmed.
- Talk it out. Talking through your problems can help to relieve the psychological pressure that causes stress. Talk to a friend, a family member or clergy member. Employee Assistance Programs available through many employers offer access to counseling.
- One by one. Studies show that multitasking decreases productivity by 40%. If the brain has to switch from one task to another repeatedly, cortisol is released, which increases anxiety.
- Improve self-talk. Using self-affirmations activate the reward centers in the brain, which can dampen pain and improve self-esteem, mood, motivation and ability to solve problems. An example is “I breathe in peace and breathe out stress.”
- Practice gratitude. Research has shown that expressing gratitude causes our brain to release dopamine and serotonin, which improves mood and sleep quality. Gratitude also decreased cortisol, which decreased pain.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of significant stress for frontline health care workers. The ten practices listed above can help them to cope as the pandemic rages on.
This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.