Stress seems to have become part of most peoples’ lives in the twenty-first century. This has been especially true during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the American Psychological Association, 78% of adults say the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life. About 2 in 3 adults (67%) say the pandemic has raised their stress levels.
Health care workers toil in some of the most difficult circumstances, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. COVID-19 has only increased pressure on them, which means health care workers need to find more ways to de-stress.
Learn more about the effects of stress on your physical and emotional well-being and get tips on stress management for health care workers.
Challenges of Stress Management for Health Care Workers
“Everyone experiences stress,” says Alexis Hanson, DNP, FNP-C, faculty member in the Purdue Global School of Nursing. “It becomes a concern when it develops into chronic stress.”
Stress typically comes from work or life circumstances. Work stressors may include:
- Job dissatisfaction
- Heavy workload
- Long hours
- Poor management
- Unclear expectations
- Dangerous conditions
- Coworker conflicts
Other life stressors include:
- Death of a loved one
- Job loss
- Financial problems
- Chronic illness or injury
- Unexpected life events
“In addition, ineffective time management and procrastination are two common causes of stress that many of us have dealt with,” Hanson says. “Finding a resolution for these issues can be challenging, but there are solutions to improve these stressors.”
Stress that is unresolved over a long period becomes chronic.
“Genetics is one factor that can predispose individuals to certain health or disease conditions, including hormonal issues, that can influence stress levels,” Hanson says. “Then, if you add in environmental and lifestyle factors, and life experiences, stress levels can either increase or decrease depending upon the situation. Stress can be self-limiting (happening acutely in the moment, and able to be overcome), or chronic (having a continuous level of stress, with varying moments of relief).”
Such chronic stress can lead to, or aggravate, more serious health problems.
How the Body Feels Stress
Stress hormones can put a lot of wear and tear on your body, making you more prone to illness and causing the body to age more quickly.
Stress might begin to show itself physically:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Upset stomach
“Stress affects the mind, body, and well-being,” Hanson says. “Our main stress hormones are adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline fuels our ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic response, which can automatically increase our energy, blood pressure, heart rate, and other bodily functions in response to a stressful situation.”
“Cortisol can also raise in response to stress, with the potential to adversely affect the body in many ways. The negative influences of high cortisol levels on the mind and body, especially when one has chronic stress, can precipitate many stress-based health conditions.”
“With chronic stress, some of the more common health issues patients have presented with in clinic include: anxiety, fatigue, headache, digestive issues, and high blood pressure,” says Dr. Hanson, who is also an urgent care clinic provider.
Chronic stress, involving long-term activation of adrenaline and cortisol, puts people at increased risk for many health problems. According to the Mayo Clinic, these can include:
- Weight gain
- Heart palpitations
- Heart disease
- Memory and concentration problems
- Sleep issues
How Health Care Workers Can Defeat Stress
“Learning how to manage stress is based upon each individual’s goals, motivation, and choices,” says Hanson. “We can learn to be successful at overcoming stress, once we find the tools that work best for each of us.”
“Although a stressor may begin as a situation we feel is out of our control, we have choices on how we respond to that given situation.”
Healthy Ways to Overcome Stress
- Rest and relaxation
- Break for a power nap—Power naps can increase energy, stabilize emotions, and restore brain functionality.
- Breathe deep—Oxygen flow throughout the body can be increased with deep breaths. Breathe in slowly and completely through your nose, then slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat this process 5–10 times to relieve stress.
- Experiment with yoga—Stretching, in general, is great for your body and an excellent way to reduce stress.
- Try meditation—Meditation can calm nerves and help you focus on the positives in life rather than the negatives. Use popular apps like Headspace, Inscape, Mindvalley, and Insight Timer to practice mindfulness.
- Get a massage—You may build up physical stress in your muscles from the mental stress of your life. If this sounds like you, take a couple of minutes and massage your shoulders and neck. You may be surprised at how tense your muscles are. Better yet, schedule a massage with a licensed massage therapist.
- Adopt healthy eating and lifestyle habits—“Making unhealthy eating choices can be due to many reasons including: stress, boredom, lack of time, or convenience,” Hanson says. “When it comes to diet, exercise, and healthy eating plans, remember it is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. It’s important to find an eating plan that fits into your personal lifestyle, with healthy food choices that increase your wellness and energy. In my experience, I’ve found that when someone finds an eating and exercise plan that they enjoy and can stick with long-term, many times they feel happier and healthier, with an increased level of self-awareness, energy, and confidence.”
- Go outside—Immersing yourself in nature and the warm sun can improve levels of vitamin D, help with concentration, and prevent illnesses.
- Listen to music—Listening to music can help you recover from stress faster, and it can also help the endocrine and psychological stress response, according to the National Institutes of Health.
- Read or listen to stories—Reading draws your focus away from your stress. By immersing yourself into a novel, you let your brain absorb the story, and you let the stress and everything around you dissipate. If you don’t like reading novels, you can always read news articles or other pieces of similar length. There are also audiobooks through Audible or Blinkist, where you can listen to stories instead of reading them.
- Get organized—Clean up your room or clear off a desk. Organizing is one of the best ways to recover from a stressful day at work because it will help you decompress and help push your life in a positive direction.
- Pet therapy—Having a dog, cat, or any pet around comes with many benefits. The simple act of interacting with and petting an animal releases the feel-good chemicals of oxytocin and serotonin, which can help promote relaxation and decrease stress and anxiety levels, according to Psychology Today.
- Take some time off—Whether it’s a day, weekend, or a full vacation, getting away from the stress of work can be a positive experience.
- Use essential oils—Concentrated oils, or essences, have many uses. Lavender oil is often used to fight anxiety, depression, headaches, or muscle pain. Rub a tiny bit of oil in your hands and take a few deep breaths. But use caution: Bottled oils can be potent—up to 50 to 100 times more concentrated than the oils in plants, according to The Washington Post—and can be risky if used incorrectly.
- Take time for gratitude—“Every morning when I wake up and every evening when I go to bed, I make it my mantra to say what I'm grateful for, including my family, friends, community, career, good health and wellness, and more,” Dr. Hanson says. “Giving gratitude for what we have, what we can share, and how we can help others, is a strong stress reliever and helps us to appreciate all the positive things in life.”
Self-Care for Nurses and Other Health Care Workers
As a health care professional, it’s vitally important to destress for your health and the health of your patients. Read more about the importance of self-care for nurses and how to put a plan in place.
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