First Responders First//

How to Tell When Your Stress Level Is Becoming Harmful

And quick, simple strategies to reset yourself before you reach a breaking point.

Emanuele Cremaschi / Stringer / Getty Images
Emanuele Cremaschi / Stringer / Getty Images

As a first responder — whether you’re a home health aide, social worker, community health worker, nurse, or physician — you know that stress is a part of the job, and you likely have some strategies to keep yours at bay. But in the face of today’s unprecedented health crisis, your stress levels may reach new heights as you take on the responsibility of helping at the front lines. 

When left unmanaged, chronic stress can weaken your immune system, lead to burnout, and rob you of the reason you wanted to do this critical work in the first place. You can’t control a lot when it comes to this virus, like the exposure you have to other people’s suffering, or how many patients you may need to treat with the resources you have, but with the right strategies, you can change how you respond to these distressing situations. 

And the first step toward reducing your stress is being able to spot when it’s reaching harmful heights. According to a 2019 research review in the journal Stress Challenges and Immunity in Space, by changing the way we evaluate stress, we can trigger a change in how we react to it. If you can notice, then, when your negative stress is beginning to feel unmanageable, you can take proactive measures to course-correct. 

Some common signs of overstress include the inability to relax when off duty, irritability and argumentativeness, and increased social conflicts, like blaming others, or withdrawal, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Being able to tell when your stress levels are becoming harmful, and taking steps to course-correct, can help preserve the integrity of your immune system — a shield of armor that needs protection while you serve your communities during this crisis. When cortisol spikes for a prolonged amount of time (as it does when stress becomes cumulative and goes unmanaged), the body’s ability to regulate inflammation decreases, which in turn weakens the immune system, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found. Stress also decreases the body’s lymphocytes, which are the white blood cells that fight off infection, putting us at greater risk for contracting viruses, according to the Cleveland Clinic. 

To help develop self-awareness of overstress, the SAMHSA recommends talking with your teammates about your personal warning signs — and asking questions to learn about theirs. First responders can often see red flags in others better than they can see it themselves, so having an accountability buddy or two can help you remain vigilant. Then, most importantly, if your teammate notices your warning signs and urges you to to take a break to recharge, you should listen. 

Recharging doesn’t mean taking extended time off. In fact, it can mean a single deep breath. This is an example of what we at Thrive call Microsteps — small, science-backed actions you can start taking immediately to build habits that significantly improve your life. In a couple of minutes or less — whether you’re already extremely stressed, or are taking steps to prevent stress from spilling over — you can choose any of the following Microsteps (and there are plenty more here) to boost your sense of calm and further develop your resilience during these trying times. 

Right now, identify your top “stressor signals” that remind you that your battery is running low. Learning how to listen to your own particular signals is an important way to guide your microbreaks throughout your day or your shift. Common signals include rapid heart rate, strong negative feelings, difficulty thinking clearly, unnecessary risk taking, and social conflicts. When you notice your signal, SAMHSA guidelines recommend a brief pause to reset so you can be your best at helping others. 

Find a workmate who makes you feel safe and try to briefly connect with them each day. This might be a friend, your supervisor, or simply a colleague with a particularly grounding presence. When you feel upset or stressed, it’s important to share your emotions with someone you trust.  

If you are detached or even numb to people and events around you, pause and focus on your breathing. The V.A. Covid-19 Guidelines emphasize the importance of short breaks to rejuvenate. This brief form of meditation will help you to recharge so you can focus on what you can control and foster a sense of resilience and hope.  

If you catch yourself saying you’re unable to practice self-care, pause and choose a new mindset. There’s nothing selfish about taking care of your basic needs. Per SAMHSA guidelines, it’s essential to recognize that your stress management must come first. Shift your self-talk to something like, “When I take care of myself in small ways, I can be my best self to take care of patients.” 

Set aside a few minutes of recovery time after a challenging moment. Instead of returning immediately to your work, take a short walk or a few minutes of conscious breathing. Consciously building in just a few minutes helps you to collect your thoughts, recharge, and bounce back from any challenges.

Click here for information about how Thrive Global is supporting our healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, and find out how you can support the cause by donating to #FirstRespondersFirst.

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