By Dr. Jessica Clemons, as told to Margarita Bertsos
NAMI is partnering with #FirstRespondersFirst to raise awareness about the importance of mental health in frontline health care and public safety professionals. In today's blog, Dr. Jessica Clemons shares ways she has been coping with her own stress during COVID-19.
Our frontline health workers are the first responders in the fight against the coronavirus. These health professionals will also be our guides and community allies on the road to our full recovery as a healthy nation. Thrive Global is sharing their inspiring stories.
I’m a full-time practicing psychiatrist, and although I’m typically the one doling out advice on managing stress, this past year has really been about coping with my own stress, too. I became a first-time mother during the coronavirus crisis. And on top of that, I live in New York City, which was the epicenter of the pandemic for a while. So it was a very stressful period — to be giving birth, entering this new motherhood journey, and trying to think about the safety of everyone in the family. Add to that all the uncertainty with work, like: What is this going to look like? Am I going to need to go into the office to see patients?
My stress levels were the highest they’ve ever been. The last time I felt stress reach a similar point was during residency and certain rotations during medical school. But with those periods of stress, I could always see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that made things easier somehow. Now, we are still very much in the pandemic, and it’s harder to see when we’re going to come out of the challenges — which can make them more difficult to cope with. But there are always tools available to us. Here’s what I’ve learned about managing stress from both my patients’ experiences and my own:
1. Listen to your body’s stress signals
I’m a big believer in learning how to pay attention to the signals our body is trying to send us about stress, and using them as a guide to make adjustments. People who practice yoga or meditation often find that these can be really helpful tools for tuning in and listening. But even if you find one moment in your day when you can consistently sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed, it will make a difference. You can set a timer for one minute; don’t try to be in that stereotypical “om” state — just sit still and pay attention to what’s happening in your body. Maybe the next time, if you feel like you’ve mastered a minute, you can try sitting for two, then three, then five, then 10, and so on.
I make it a habit to check in with myself at the end of each workday. If I’m feeling “butterflies,” or feeling like my heart is beating faster, or my temperature is rising, those are signs that I’m probably overwhelmed and stressed. These clues are so important to tap into, because when I’m aware of my stress, I can ask myself: What can I do right now to bring myself back to a place where I’m calmer? So then I might turn the news off, or pick up my baby and play, or take a break from social media, or go outside for a walk. If I feel more relaxed after I do these things, then I know that I spotted something that was real and responded to it.
2. Learn how to “triage”
In medical school, we learned about the importance of triage. Triage is used when the medical care system is overloaded, and you have to determine who gets care first, based on everyone’s needs. Well, I’ve been finding that in order to keep my stress levels in check, I have to apply the method to my own life, too. This requires looking at what’s urgent and needs to be done right away, and being comfortable with certain things waiting till the next day. For instance, maybe I’ll prioritize calling in someone’s prescription to the pharmacy over responding to an email about scheduling — things like that.
3. Embrace imperfection
I want to do my best to keep my stress levels as low as I can so that I can show up and be fully present for my new baby, my husband, and patients that I care for. Ironically, one of the ways I’m able to show up as my best for everyone is to let go of things looking a certain way. And practicing self-compassion is the key to this. I give myself the space to do only what I can, both in work and in my personal life. I’m nursing and that’s challenging at times. But I give myself grace and remember that things don’t have to be perfect, and my little one will still be fine. In fact, he’s thriving!
When your mind starts to tell you that you will “fail” if things aren’t done perfectly, having a mantra or an affirmation that you can say to yourself to remind you of what’s important can help. And this pandemic has really shown us what’s important: being healthy, having relationships that we can rely on, having a steady income or resources that allow us to take care of our fundamental needs, like getting a meal. When we can focus on the basics, and have gratitude for them, our perfectionism has a chance of falling away.
Identify a moment in your daily routine when you can practice positive affirmations. The affirmation can be a line of poetry, an inspiring quotation, even a song lyric. Picking a specific moment helps you build the muscle that will help you push back on your negative inner voice.
4. Build your anti-stress routine — and stick to it
I think it’s helpful, as much as possible, to try to have some routines. If you start your day at the same time each day, take a shower, and go for a run or do some exercise, that’s a great way to get ahead of the stress. Exercise and movement in general is a great way to de-stress, thanks in part to the neurotransmitters that are released when you do it.
In addition to exercise, look for other healthy habits you can practice with some consistency. Maybe it’s a 20-minute afternoon “nature walk” — researchers are finding that spending time in nature can significantly lower your stress hormone levels. I recommend doing it without being connected to music or scrolling through your phone; just get into the moment. Or maybe you make it a habit to journal before bed. If you are someone who has a lot of worries or anxious thoughts that make it difficult to fall asleep, the thoughts may just keep hovering unless you write them down. Your brain doesn’t want to let you forget that you have to call this person back. Put it in a journal and see if that helps!
Lastly, while routines you can do on your own are great, don’t forget about regularly connecting with others. Spending time (even virtually) with people who make you feel good, and sharing a laugh or a good conversation, is always a wonderful way to de-stress.
Schedule time to go outside. Just a few minutes during the day can make a big difference. Simply being outdoors and surrounded by nature not only improves your well-being, but inspires you to be a more creative, more present version of yourself.
5. Try “acceptance coping” versus “solutions coping”
One of the questions I’ve been receiving a lot lately is how to manage the stress from things that are completely out of our control. My advice: In situations that are out of our hands, it’s OK to use the tool of acceptance instead of the tool of problem solving. People who practice mindfulness do this really well, and it helps them to reduce their anxiety.
Acceptance doesn’t mean you’re not doing your part. In the case of the pandemic, it’s important to do what you can to prevent the spread of the virus. In the case of the social unrest this year, it’s key to stay engaged in your community. Basically, do the things that give you agency. Acceptance is simply saying, “I have done my part, and now, whatever the outcome, I have to accept it.”
This piece originally appeared on thriveglobal.com.
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