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Caregiver Stress in the Time of COVID-19

Todd Popielarz

Whether a nurse, a physician, a patient transporter or a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA), healthcare professionals working during a prolonged or intense incident can experience stress related symptoms that are both natural and expected. Centura Health wants to remind caregivers and their loved ones to pay attention to the signs of stress and to reach out for support.

“As a former Army Colonel and current psychiatrist, I have worked with numerous individuals who experienced ‘combat stress’ and it is critical we remove any stigma associated with human reactions to these extended and heightened events. It is important for family and friends of health care workers, as well as these professionals themselves, to understand the high potential of reactions caregiver will experience during a time such as COVID-19,” Dr. George Brandt, “Being in a challenging environment, brings an anticipated amount of physiological stress (poor diet, little opportunity for personal self-care) and psychological stress (concerns about exposure, children at home, patient outcomes) being placed on caregivers.

Some of the signs to look for could include:

  • Problems sleeping
  • Excessive fear and worry
  • Headaches and fatigue
  • Uncharacteristic irritability or angry outbursts
  • Feeling anxious
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Other changes in behavior, personality or thinking.

“The real key to effective management of stress as well as long-term adjustment is the adoption of some personal strategies coupled with the passage of time,’ explained Dr. Brandt. “The goal isn’t to avoid these experiences or deny them. The goal is to find helpful ways to discuss your experiences and move beyond them.”

Dr. Brandt warns that caregivers and other essential workers should not be blamed or considered “weak” for these feelings, but rather supported through some of the suggested actions below:

  • Maintain your health. Drink plenty of water, eat nutritious meals, exercise and get enough sleep. The National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Sleep restores the body and can protect you from the negative consequences of too much stress.
  • Reach out to others with similar experiences. Colleagues and other industry professionals are probably having many of the same feelings you are experiencing. If you have team huddles, debriefs, or Employee Assistance Programs – use those resources. You will soon discover your feelings are not uncommon – you aren’t alone.
  • Use your sense of humor. Sometimes humor can help you look at stressful situations from a different perspective. Laugh often — it is a great stress reliever.
  • Address your spiritual needs. Some people find strength in some form of prayer or by discussing their concerns with a chaplain or other spiritual caregiver.
  • Ask for help in managing problems at home while you are away. It is hard to keep your head in the game if you’re worried about issues back home. Talk to your spouse, significant other, family member, roommate or friend. They may be very eager and hoping to step in and help during this time of “shelter in place.”
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Relaxing sometimes requires focus and a little practice. Make sure you do things during the day that you enjoy. Meditation and deep breathing exercises can also release stress by relaxing the central nervous system.
  • Return to a routine as soon as possible with regular meals, sleep and exercise.

Most caregivers have a hard time asking for help. Unfortunately, this perspective can lead to feelings of isolation and even depression. The emotional and physical demands involved with caregiving can strain even the most resilient person.