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“There are those who will need mental health treatment, so creating an easy way to reach out for help and facilitate linkage with care is critically important,” Dr. Levenson, associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York, said during an annual psychopharmacology update held by the Nevada Psychiatric Association. “The vast majority of our workforce will thrive with proper support. But what can each of us do to take care of ourselves?”
Step one is to recognize common stress reactions as well as signs of distress. He offered the oxygen mask metaphor, the idea that before we can take care of and support anyone else, we must first take care of ourselves. “When people are stressed, they don’t always think about the oxygen mask metaphor,” Dr. Levenson said. Step two is to practice and model self-care by adopting principles often discussed in acceptance and commitment therapy: to focus on what you can control, not on what you can’t control.
“We can’t control the amount of toilet paper at the grocery store, how long the pandemic will last, or how others have reacted,” Dr. Levenson said. “We also can’t control other people’s motives, predict what will happen, or the actions of others, including whether they will follow social distancing guidelines or not.”
How about what we can control? One is a positive attitude, “which can sustain people during times of intense stress,” he said. “Other things that we can do include turn off the news and find fun and enriching activities to do at home, whether it be playing a game with family or reaching out to friends through an iPad or a smartphone. You can also follow [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations, control your own social distancing, and limit social media activity, which can be stressful. We can also control our kindness and grace.” He added that resilience does not mean “snapping back” to how you were before the pandemic, but rather “learning to integrate the adverse experiences into who you are and growing with them, which is sometimes known as posttraumatic growth.”
Dr. Levenson encouraged health care workers to use their coping resources, connect to others, and cultivate their values and purpose in life as they navigate these challenging times. “You also want to promote realistic optimism; find a way to stay positive,” he said. “We emphasize to our staff that while you won’t forget this time, focus on what you can control – your positive relationships – and remind yourself of your values and sources of gratitude. Figure out, and reflect on, what you care about, and then care about it. Remind yourself in a deliberate, purposeful way what anchors you to your job, which in the health care setting tends to be a desire to care for others, to assist those in need, and to work in teams. We also encourage staff to refrain from judgment. Guilt is a normal and near-universal response to this stressor, but there are many ways to contribute without a judgmental or guilty tone.”
Other tips for self-support are to remind yourself that it is not selfish to take breaks. “The needs of your patients are not more important than your own needs,” Dr. Levenson said. “Working nonstop can put you at higher risk for stress, exhaustion, and illness. You may need to give yourself more time to step back and recover from workplace challenges or extended coverage for peers; this is important. We remind our staff that your work may feel more emotionally draining than usual because everything is more intense overall during the COVID-19 pandemic. This reminder helps staff normalize what they already may be experiencing, and in turn, to further support each other.”
Soothing activities to relieve stress include meditation, prayer, deep and slow breathing, relaxation exercises, yoga, mindfulness, stretching, staying hydrated, eating healthfully, exercise, and getting sufficient sleep. Other stress management tips include avoiding excessive alcohol intake, reaching out to others, asking for assistance, and delegating when possible. “We want to promote psychological flexibility: the ability to stay in contact with the present moment,” he said. “We encourage our peers to be aware of unpleasant thoughts and feelings, and to try to redirect negative thought patterns to a proactive problem-solving approach; this includes choosing one’s behaviors based on the situation and personal values.”
Dr. Levenson reported having no disclosures related to his presentation.