Caring for yourself and others in unprecedented times

In no uncertain terms, we are all facing a crisis. As such, EMS mental health is a real concern. This crisis is unique in how it affects so many various aspects of our life. Our personal lives have been uprooted — our homes are now gyms, school classrooms, and business offices. Our loved ones may be furloughed, our finances have been stressed, and we also may be suffering the grief of loved ones who are sick, injured, or deceased because of COVID-19. We may be feeling guilty for having concerns about working in this environment because “at least I have a job.” Our health concerns are many. Will I get sick? Could I bring this home to my loved ones? Can I transmit this to my patients?

Develop a plan of attack to better your EMS mental health

In times of crisis, we often need a review of the fundamentals and reminder of the resources we have available to us. We also need to be mindful and intentional in our use of these tools, as they can prove to be invaluable to us during stressful situations.

An often overlooked stress reliever is exercise. Type “quarantine workouts” into any search engine and you’ll see thousands of exercises you can do, with or without equipment. You do not need a gym or equipment to move your body. Just make sure that you’re getting some exercise every day.

Sara Gray is an EM physician and wellness/mental health advocate who discusses the importance of intentional practice in times of crisis. In a podcast titled ‘Preventing Burnout and Promoting Wellness in Emergency Medicine,’ Gray reminds us of some fundamentals that can prove useful especially while providing care during the COVID-19 Pandemic:

  • Normalizing: Know that your stress, anxiety, and fear is normal.
  • Remember that you’re not alone; we’re all in this together – stay connected.
  • Make a list for yourself: List the activities that bring you joy, comfort, peace, or refreshment, including: a) physical activity, b) mindfulness, and c) emotional wellness.
  • Make your strategies explicit by making a schedule, tell other people about what is on your list, and how they can help you (especially true for peers, spouses, significant others). This also eases your burden of having to explain what you need every time. You can simply work through the list together.

Your mind needs sleep as much as the rest of your body

If you’re like me, being busy is your best friend. In times like this, overtime can be a double-edged sword. It’s money in your pocket and reminds you that you’re helping, but it can cause more harm than good.

That said, as many of us have already figured out, this is a marathon, not a sprint. When in the seemingly endless cycle of extra shifts, late calls and mandatory call backs, are EMS taking time for their mental health? Stopping to rest and allowing your mind and body to heal ensures you are being the BEST provider you can be. You cannot single handedly keep your team afloat, you will die trying. This is the mental and emotional metaphor for “putting your own oxygen mask on before you help others.” Knowing when to say no is an invaluable (if not uncomfortable) tool for you to use. Use it wisely.

  • Make sure you’re getting high quality sleep. The Sleep Foundation’s website has an excellent review of the fundamentals for quality sleep and addresses the difficulties that quarantines and high stress events can have on sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine one to two hours before bed. You know your body and baseline caffeine intake best. Alcohol use should be avoided before bed. Both alcohol and caffeine make it harder to sleep deeply and continuously through the night.
  • Minimize the use of electronic devices, including your phone. Avoid their use in the hour leading up to bedtime.
  • Consistent sleep schedules are challenging for us in the shift world (again, especially those working nights). Rather than a sleep schedule, establish a “turn down” routine to tell your body that you are preparing to sleep.
  • Create the best sleeping area possible: dark, quiet, and with minimal distraction. Given our unpredictable schedules, try being as consistent as possible.

EMS mental health and asking for help

One unique benefit of being in any field of healthcare at this time is many mental health professionals, meditation and mindfulness platforms are seeing our need for their help. There are many free or discounted virtual counseling platforms that are available. It is worth the time to reach out to your agency’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to see who the mental health professionals are in your area and how they are offering help. These are just a few examples of the many mental health professionals whose services are available:

  • Massachusetts General Hospital: This web page holds a tremendous set of guidelines, tools, and research all aimed at providing “a range of expert-recommended strategies for individuals dealing with or at risk for mental health conditions”.
  • Project Parachute: Offers pro bono therapy to healthcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Talk Space: A virtual counseling website and app that offers discounted and free sessions to healthcare providers. Limitations and exclusions apply.
  • Better Help: A virtual counseling website and app that offers discounted sessions to healthcare providers. Limitations and exclusions apply.
  • Headspace: A meditation and mindfulness app (iPhone and iOS) that offers a year of their “pro” version for healthcare providers.

Remember your resilience

To Paraphrase EMT and Psychologist Drew Anderson: Humans, at baseline, are tremendously resilient. You have survived so much up to today. Take a moment to breathe, inhale deeply, hold that breath for a moment, and then release it. Every day, remind yourself of something you are thankful that you have, rather than what you’re missing. It is a tremendously simple exercise that can bolster your attitude and your outlook.

Stay safe and be well!

To learn more about resilience, mental, and emotional health for the EMS Professional check out our ALS L-11 , BLS L-8, and CCTR L-28 courses.