7 Stress Management Strategies for Healthcare Providers

Healthcare providers face unprecedented challenges as we address the COVID-19 pandemic. We have a key role in providing stability, kindness, compassion, and care to patients, families, friends, and neighbors under unusually stressful life circumstances. Self-regulating our own stress reaction and cultivating a calm mind are both immensely valuable as we find ways to respond skillfully in a manner that benefits our community.

Drawing from my experience practicing and teaching mindfulness-based stress and pain management for over 30 years, here are seven strategies to achieve calm body and mind.

1. Remember to Breathe

Slow, diaphragmatic breathing can help calm your nervous system and steady your mind. Let your awareness rest with the beginning of the inhalation and the sensations of movement in your torso as you inhale and with the beginning of the exhalation and the sensations in your torso as you exhale. Pay attention to the direct sensory experience of your breath with acceptance, friendliness, and curiosity. Repeat often throughout your day.

2. Accept Uncertainty

If you are struggling with the reality of the pandemic and your circumstances, experiment with stopping the struggle. Fighting with uncertainty and things over which you have no control wastes energy and undermines your wisdom and ability to respond skillfully. There is no escape from life’s difficult circumstances. You need to accept that we are facing an unprecedented challenge.

3. Practice Being Kind to Yourself

Healthcare providers are often high achievers. An accompanying trait of this behavior can be a harsh inner critic, quick to self-judgment and finding fault with one’s speech and actions. This is not the time to find fault with yourself. The pandemic has pushed everyone out of their normal routine and comfort zone. It can feel disorienting and distressing. It’s best to appreciate that we are all doing our best, learning as we go, and learning together.

If you find yourself being hard on yourself, think of how you would talk with a loved one or colleague. Embrace and appreciate your natural wisdom, which comes so easily when helping someone else. Take that same thought process and wisdom and apply it to yourself. Learning to coach yourself as you would a loved one or colleague is a powerful strategy for both calming your nervous system and and cultivating a steady, clear mind.

4. Practice Present Moment Awareness.

It’s important to pay attention to your sensory experience in the present moment. Take notice of the sensations arising from your body as well as the sounds, sights, and smells around you. Avoid getting lost in thoughts about your experience, but rather focus on the immediate sensory experience of life before filtering it with thoughts, ideas, and beliefs.

This practice can help you listen more closely to life itself. You will discover new perspectives, insights, and aliveness that cannot occur when you live lost in thought. One specific activity you can try is to bring present moment awareness to hand washing!

5. Embrace Perspective

Now more than ever, savor the goodness in your life and reflect on what you are grateful for. Joys and sorrows co-exist. To savor the joy and remember what you are grateful for is not to deny the fear and sorrow, but to nourish your inner resilience and cultivate a larger perspective in order to be stable and skillful.

6. Regulate Difficult Emotions

When anxiety, frustration, or sadness arises, accept it whole heartedly. It’s not helpful to to push it away, struggle, or tell yourself you are not a good responder in a crisis. Anxiety, frustration, and sadness are normal human emotions in highly uncertain circumstances and in response to loss.

There are several on-the-spot practices for difficult emotions. The first and foremost is to always feel what you feel without judgment. In addition, try saying to yourself, “Oh, this is what it is like for a human to feel anxious.” This statement helps you have a better perspective and use your personal experience to gain insight into what all humans experience. Continue to reflect: “Right now there are other people, just like me, who are feeling this. I have colleagues feeling this way. There are people all over the world feeling this way.” This practice will help you experience your connectedness with others in the same situation. Next, imagine sending yourself, or anyone else who might be feeling anxious, the feelings of understanding, love, and compassion. You can do this with any emotion.

Another on-the-spot practice for difficult emotions is to think of loved ones who care deeply about your happiness and well-being. Imagine them surrounding you and showering you in their love, kindness, and compassion. Let the emotion rest in this much larger field of love, kindness, and compassion, like a cloud floating in the blue sky.

7. Maintain Healthy Habits

Continue to do those things you know nourish you and also those things that are recognized to be basic healthy habits: wash your hands, exercise, meditate, eat well, drink water, practice physical distancing, and stay socially connected using virtual tools!

Grow Stronger and Wiser

Remember you are not alone in this. You are going through this with your immediate circle of family and friends, with your local community, with your professional colleagues, and as a country and a global family. We are in this together and will get through this together. This too shall pass, and along the way, we can grow stronger and wiser together.