First Responders First//

Coping with trauma and mental wellness as a healthcare professional

Helping yourself in the midst of a pandemic

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If you chose the medical profession, you certainly knew that it wouldn’t be easy. In fact, you knew very well that you were bound to encounter loss, trauma, and some unspeakable aspects of the human condition. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout was probably already part of your job. Studies show that approximately 40-50% of American doctors exhibit signs of burnout. But this deadliest year brought a nearly intolerable extra layer of traumatic exposure. 

Yet there are things you can do that will enable you to become a warrior as you ride the waves of the pandemic and handle the repeated jolts to your nervous system. And remember – this is NOT forever. With a little support, you can come through this experience more resilient than ever!

Know that what you’re going through is normal…kind of.

While navigating the frontline of a pandemic is not exactly “normal,” everything you are experiencing right now is: Feeling numb, exhausted, and paralyzed; experiencing insomnia, social avoidance, or a sense of helplessness. None of this means that something is wrong with you. On the contrary, it means that you are alive and you are reacting as a healthy human being.

Knowing that you are not alone, and that others are experiencing the same turbulent emotions and unfamiliar feelings can be a comfort. In fact, a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science showed that facing a difficult situation alongside a peer or colleague can help to decrease the stress you feel. Consider confiding in a colleague or a friend who may be going through the same thing. Discuss the stress and sadness you’re feeling. You may find they feel the very same way, so sharing that emotional load can be a big relief.

Shift from “surviving” to “thriving”

By now, you’ve likely heard many folks share some tips for coping with the craziness of the pandemic. Someone may have suggested you get enough rest, meditate, and do some breath work or journaling. Others may have suggested staying connected with friends and family via online video meetings, exercising, or distracting yourself with a good Netflix binge. 

And while these are all great suggestions for general wellbeing, I want to share with you a tool that you can use anywhere, anytime, to promote nervous system regulation and to build resiliency in the midst of crisis.

The Crisis Stabilization and Safety Aid workgroup at the Somatic Experiencing ® Trauma Institute has developed a seemingly simple behavioral model called “SCOPE,” which can help stabilize physiological stress responses. Here’s how you can use it. 

In times of distress, remember the acronym, SCOPE:

  • Slow Down – Take 10 steps very slowly, noticing any sensations on the bottom of your feet.
  • Connect to Body – Cross your arms and ankles, tuck your hands under your armpits, lower your head and breathe.
  • Orient – Slowly look around, noticing colors and shapes. Let your gaze rest on something pleasant or comforting, sort of like taking a brief visual vacation.
  • Pendulate – Notice a place of ease in your body and a place of tension. Slowly shift attention between: ease – tension – ease.
  • Engage – Engage socially. Connect with someone who can support you.

These simple steps can help to stabilize the stress response and build resilience to help you navigate your workday and through the crisis.

Talk with someone

It’s normal to feel wary of talking with someone. Connections with your workplace, insurance, and other factors can make it tough. With that in mind, COVID-19 inspired me to create a nonprofit called Therapy Aid Coalition as a response to the critical need for mental health guidance among healthcare workers. Our organization provides free and low-cost online therapy throughout the United States. It’s a nonprofit with more than 3,000 participating therapists, and it’s completely anonymous – no connections with work – no insurance needed. I encourage you to reach out if you need someone to talk to.

In the words of Dr. Peter Levine, “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.” You don’t have to go it alone.

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