Health

4 Tips for Managing Pandemic Stress From Frontline Heroes

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We asked essential workers how they’re allaying pandemic stress in these unprecedented times. Here, their simple secrets to calming fear and meeting each day with hope.

As you walk your dog, you see a sign on your neighbor’s front lawn thanking essential workers, and you stop for a moment to reflect on the bravery of everyone from supermarket cashiers to nurses on the front lines of the pandemic. They’re under so much stress, you marvel. How do they do it? It’s not merely a rhetorical question — the answer can help you ease your own fear and anxiety.

“Frontline workers face multiple layers of pandemic stress: vicarious trauma, burnout, and compassion fatigue,” reveals psychologist Diana Concannon, PsyD, explaining that COVID-19 has made all of us share in these types of hardships on a scale we never experienced before. “Vicarious trauma is exposure to others’ pain that can make us depressed or pessimistic,” she says. While nurses often experience this in the ICU, we may feel it to a lesser degree by seeing people suffer on the news. And while burnout needs little explanation, compassion fatigue is a bit more complex: “It stems from suppressing our emotions while showing others empathy — it’s a combination of vicarious trauma and burnout.”

The good news is that we can mitigate these pandemic stress syndromes and boost “post-traumatic growth,” the strength that comes from having gone through adversity. Just read on to let our heroes’ bravery and resilience boost yours.

Fearful? Try ‘furry’ mindfulness.

An in-charge paramedic in Conroe, Texas, Meagan Heinrich bravely faces each day with one fear: Will I bring this virus back to my family?

Her worry Rx: “My biggest stress-reliever is horseback riding,” she says, explaining that being around her equine pals helps her forget about even her worst days. “I talk to them and teach them exercises using body language. It kind of feels like driving a standard car because you have to slow down and be extremely conscious of what you’re doing; it really takes my mind off things.”

Communing with animals, including our pets, is a powerful form of mindfulness. “Animals demand our complete focus, slowing our racing thoughts”, says Concannon. “In fact, the kinesthetic aspect of petting a dog or cat provides healing movement that washes away stress hormones.”

And if you talk to your pet, like Meagan does, all the better. Studies show that these cross-species “conversations” are so therapeutic because — unlike with human-to-human chats — we don’t censor ourselves, allowing for a truly cathartic release.

Overwhelmed? Giggle at a morning meme.

When COVID-19 first appeared, the reason it was called novel quickly became clear to Michele Loor, MD, medical director of the surgical intensive care unit at Baylor St. Luke’s in Houston.

“We didn’t know what we were dealing with — it was jarring and humbling.” To lift their spirits, Dr. Loor and her colleagues began starting the day with a funny “morning meme,” such as a cartoon. “You could feel a heaviness in the air — serious, focused, quiet. But sharing these silly memes just made us smile, and it became a thing we did every day to break out of doomsday thoughts.”

Just looking forward to a giggle unleashes endorphins and dials up immunity-boosting human growth hormone. “Our moods normally come and go quickly,” says Concannon. “But in times of incredible intensity, we can get ‘stuck’ in difficult emotions. Humor, however, instantly shatters the hold that negativity has on us.”

Consider starting your day with a funny YouTube video or sending a humorous text to a friend — making others laugh is just as rewarding as laughing yourself.

Exhausted? Plant for tomorrow.

Mary Guenther, RN, an ICU nurse at Saint Elizabeth Hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska, has taken on a role she never expected during the pandemic.

“I’ve become an ‘in-between’ for patients and their families, calling them with updates,” she says, revealing how honored she feels. “But I’ve also learned to create emotional boundaries. When I’m drained, I name the feeling so I can contain it at work and deal with it later.”

One way she copes is through gardening. “I have a planter box at my apartment that I share with neighbors, and we’ve grown roses, lavender and veggies. Taking care of something that isn’t human lets me nurture without the stress.”

Simply caring for a houseplant decreases pandemic stress and alleviates loneliness. “Gardening is meditative because planting and weeding are metaphors for hope,” says Concannon. You can even emulate Guenther and join neighbors: Community gardening is especially soothing because of its service element. “It speaks to the future — we don’t plant for today, we plant for tomorrow.

Losing hope? Lean on spirituality.

A cashier at a Safeway in Bethesda, Maryland, Crystal Jones says her faith has helped her stay positive throughout the health crisis. “Prayer keeps me going, putting one foot in front of the other each day,” she shares. It’s this foundation of spirituality that has helped her fight pessimism and find hope.

Prayer and spirituality are shown to make us feel more connected to each other and to the world at large. “Faith provides context for our experiences — it links us to a larger meaning, helping us believe that we can address the challenges we face,” observes Concannon.

It’s a bond that also helps us listen to one another, something Jones is seeing more and more these days. “Customers, who in the past may have been reserved, now make conversation, expressing their fears for themselves and for frontline workers — there’s more of a sense of community.”

We really are all in this together, she says, and spirituality serves as a powerful reminder of the simple ways we can support each other.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine.

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