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How to handle stress in a healthcare setting

Working in healthcare can be rewarding and stressful in equal measure. It’s not uncommon for nurses to be put in challenging situations. Making life and death decisions, dealing with the trauma of serious accidents and injuries, consoling grieving relatives, and managing aggressive patients are just some of the pressures of the job. These kinds of stresses can trigger a whole range of emotions. From fear, frustration and anger, to joy, worry and sadness, these emotions are normal and may vary day-to-day or hit you all within an hour. So, it’s important your feelings are well managed with good coping strategies to make sure you keep emotionally well.

We caught up with Dr Sandra Walker — she has previously trained as a nurse and a midwife and is currently a registered psychologist — to find out how stay in a good headspace in healthcare. Here’s what she had to say.

A problem shared is a problem halved

A problem shared is a problem halved

I think it’s really important to have workplace debriefing sessions because sharing feelings can help validate and normalise emotional responses to tough situations. Talking to colleagues, outside of work, about the highs and lows of an intense day is also a really good way to deal with your emotions. Some healthcare professionals have a tendency to be stoic, and while this is appropriate in some situations, it’s very important not to bottle up your feelings for too long as this may lead to ongoing and unresolved stress. Opening up about workplace stress allows you to tap into the support of others and learn how to manage stress.

It’s okay to cry

When you witness traumatic events, extreme pain and suffering, or death it’s normal to want to cry. In these situations, many healthcare professionals selflessly hold it together for the grieving friends and family, or their own colleagues. While it’s okay to be strong in the moment, it’s very important to find space to connect with sadness and cry. Crying is a healthy way of processing grief because it provides grounding and helps us build resilience and coping. While it can be difficult to share tears with people, don’t be afraid of reaching out because it’s likely your colleagues will have experienced similar sad times.

Don’t get angry, find a solution

Demanding patients or a clash of opinions with a colleague can lead to frustration and even anger. While you may feel enraged or disrespected, it’s much more constructive to take a short pause and focus on finding a solution rather than paying attention to your internal dialogue. Clear and calm communication, and willingness to listen and understand another person’s point of view in these situations will lead to better personal, professional, and patient outcomes. Remember, if there’s a problem or person you’re finding hard to manage on your own then you need to raise it with your trainer or a manager so they can help.

Remember to breathe

During busy days or critical rapid response events it’s common for medical professionals to feel frightened or anxious because there’s a lot at stake. Shortness of breath, sweaty palms or a racing heart are all symptoms that your body is in ‘fight or flight’ mode. While this is totally normal, you need to quieten this sympathetic nervous system response so you can think clearly and act effectively. To do this, focus on taking deep and slow breaths, and relaxing any tension you feel in your neck and shoulders. In addition, try and direct your attention to the procedures and practice you need to employ to help the patient because this will take your focus away from your own fear and help your remain calm.

Switch off and have fun

After a highly emotional day it can be pretty hard to switch off. In the back of your mind you might be thinking about how you could have done things better, or worrying about a patient. While some reflection is fine, dwelling on distressing events for long periods of time can be damaging to your mental health so it’s important to find ways of switching off. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can be helpful to settle the mind after a hard day. If you’re new to this, the Headspace Meditation App is a simple and effective tool that teaches these skills. However, doing exercise, spending time in the great outdoors, or hanging out with people who make you happy are all healthy ways of giving yourself timeout. And this is very important, because if you take care of yourself then you can give your best in caring for others.

Remember, if you’re having a hard time during your healthcare placement talk to you trainer so that they can give you the care and support you need to be your best. Heads up also has some excellent resources on how to look after your mental health at work.

Dr Sandra Walker has been a registered psychologist for the past 15 years and specialises in health anxiety, phobias, depression, grief and sexual health.


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