4 Tips for Frontline Responders to Stay Grounded

Practical tools to help frontline responders care for themselves.

Posted Jul 18, 2020

United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash
Source: United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

Guest Post by Dr. Wendy R. Smith and Dr. Benjamin Andrews

If you are a frontline responder in healthcare, law enforcement, mental health, faith-based organizations or other helping professions, the pandemic can be a dark shadow that looms over the health and well-being of the people you serve. Compounding this stress is the threat to your own health and well-being as well as those you love.

Further, it may be easy to neglect your own well-being due to the demands of helping others. At work, your attention is likely fully attuned to the situation around you as you make decisions about how best to help the people in your midst. Yet what happens when your shift ends? How are you caring for yourself so that you can serve your community well during weeks and months ahead?

Research shows that people who are exposed to trauma are at risk for developing symptoms of secondary trauma, even if they are not the victim (Bercier & Maynard, 2015; Lipsky & Burk, 2009). Secondary trauma symptoms can be similar to those experienced by the victim, including increased fatigue or illness, social withdrawal, reduced productivity, feelings of hopelessness and despair, nightmares, re-experiencing the event, anxiety, unwanted thoughts or images from the event, hypervigilance, anger, and the desire to avoid people or activities (Siegfried, 2008). Additionally, we can become cynical, unable to empathize, hopeless, fearful, or believe we are the only ones who can help, among other reactions (Lipsky & Burk, 2009). If you are noticing any of these signs in your life, it is even more important that you care for yourself during this time.

Here are four practical tips for staying grounded as a frontline responder during the COVID-19 crisis.

1. Stop and Check in With Yourself

When you finish your shift, your adrenaline might still be pumping, and your mind may still be racing. It may seem impossible to stop the wave of concerns that have been flowing through your mind. Or maybe you feel too exhausted to think or engage. Either way, it may be helpful to:

  • Take a break from the news and media
  • Intentionally create space and time for silence
  • Check in with yourself:
    • How are you feeling physically? Are you tired, hungry, or sore?
    • How are you feeling emotionally? Are you agitated, exhausted, excited, depressed, or anxious?
    • How do you feel socially? Are you lonely and need connection, or do you need time to yourself?
    • If spirituality or religion is a part of your life, how are you feeling spiritually? Do you feel connected to God/your higher power/nature, or are you feeling alone and disconnected?
  • How are you feeling physically? Are you tired, hungry, or sore?
  • How are you feeling emotionally? Are you agitated, exhausted, excited, depressed, or anxious?
  • How do you feel socially? Are you lonely and need connection, or do you need time to yourself?
  • If spirituality or religion is a part of your life, how are you feeling spiritually? Do you feel connected to God/your higher power/nature, or are you feeling alone and disconnected?

Shifting from caring for others to checking in with ourselves can be hard. If you struggle with this, you might want to try an app that guides you through this process (e.g., “COVID Coach,” “Stop, Breathe, Think,” “Headspace,” or “Calm”).

2. Assess and Address Your Needs

Once you check in with yourself, assess what you need to feel more comfortable physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Next, take steps to address your needs. Do you need to reach out to people around you for help? Do you need help with errands, food preparation, or childcare? Do you need to take a day trip with someone? Do you need to talk about your thoughts and feelings with a trusted confidant? Would you benefit from a day off or a spiritual retreat?

Asking for help may go against every fiber of your being—after all, you are the one who meets the needs of others. However, much like the safety instructions on an airplane (“Put on your own mask before assisting others”), if you are not well and healthy yourself, you may lose your ability to help others.

3. Assess and Maintain Your Resources

As a frontline responder, you might be tempted to push past your limits in order to meet the needs around you. You may feel guilty about leaving tasks undone, and it might seem selfish to take care of yourself.

When you have a choice about adding responsibilities or shifts to your workload, assess how resourced you are physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Will the extra commitment(s) deplete your reserves so that you will struggle to maintain your normal duties? If so, give yourself permission to say “no” for the time being. You can pick up extra responsibilities when you are more resourced.

4. Stay Connected to Your Sources of Encouragement and Hope

Lastly, it is important to be connected to sources of encouragement and hope. Celebrate and share your successes—every life saved or individual helped is worthwhile. As necessary, grieve together, and share your burdens with those around you.

Some people may find their sense of hope through their connection with God or a higher power, and engaging in spiritual practices such as prayer, worship, or reading sacred texts can be encouraging. Others may feel rejuvenated after spending time in nature and fostering a connection to the world around us. Another source of hope and encouragement is our community of family, friends, and loved ones.

Research shows that engaging our positive religious, spiritual, and social resources is associated with improved health and well-being, and this is especially true during times of duress and disaster (Aten, Smith, Davis, Van Tongeren, Hook, Davis, Shannonhouse, DeBlaere, Ranter, O’Grady, & Hill, 2019; Michie & Williams, 2002; Taylor, 2008).

Frontline responders, thank you for your service!

Wendy R. Smith, PsyD is Director of the Center for Family and Relational Health and Assistant Professor in Marriage and Family Therapy at Wheaton College. Benjamin Andrews, PsyD is a Post-Doctoral Resident at Artisan Clinical Associates.

References

Aten, J.D., Smith, W.R., Davis, E., Van Tongeren, D., Hook, J., Davis, D., Shannonhouse, L., DeBlaere, C., Ranter, J., O'Grady, K., & Hill, P. (2019). The psychological study of religion and spirituality in a disaster context: A systemic review. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy

Bercier, M. L., & Maynard, B. R. (2015). Interventions for secondary traumatic stress with mental health workers: A systematic review. Research on Social Work Practice, 25(1), 81-89.

Lipsky, L., & Burk, C. (2009). Trauma stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Michie, S., & Williams, S. (2003). Reducing work related psychological ill health and physical sickness absence: a systematic review of literature. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 60: 3-9.

Taylor, S. E. (2008). Fostering a supportive environment at work. The Psychologist-Manager Journal 11, 265-283.

Siegfried, C. B. (2008). Child welfare work and secondary traumatic stress. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. https://cascw.umn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/CW-SecondaryTraumaticStress.pdf