Up to 70% of healthcare workers feel stressed according to a newly released 2023 study. While having high amounts of stress isn’t good for anyone, it can result in unique consequences for healthcare workers, says Dr. Jenna Sage. This makes it especially important for individuals in healthcare roles to find ways to lower their stress levels.
Dr. Sage is Director of Organizational Wellness and Wellbeing at Ultimate Medical Academy, a nonprofit healthcare educational institution that offers a variety of diploma and degree programs both online and at its Clearwater, Florida campus. In addition to helping employees tend to their mental health, she also has a passion for helping healthcare workers reduce their stress—especially post-pandemic.
Why Stress Relief is Critical for Healthcare Workers
“A lot of healthcare workers are naturally nurturing and empathetic,” says Dr. Sage, “so they can struggle to regulate their own stress and wellness.” Put another way, you are so intent on helping your patients that you forget to help yourself. Dr. Sage compares this to the airlines’ instructions to put your mask on before putting a mask on someone else if the plane experiences issues. You can’t help anyone else if you don’t look after yourself first.
Plus, being in a healthcare role, you’re also exposed to the stress being experienced by your patients and their families. This can impact your stress levels further. Not to mention, patients can feel if you’re stressed and the last thing most healthcare workers want is to pass their stress onto others.
Not all stress is bad for you. The problem exists when stress exists consistently over several weeks or months at a time. This is referred to as chronic stress, which research indicates puts individuals at a greater risk of developing a variety of physical and mental health disorders. Chronic stress can even change brain structure, negatively affecting cognitive function and memory.
“Stress should be a temporary thing,” explains Dr. Sage. “The consequence of not relieving stress or having those resilience mechanisms is we lose that sense of balance. Stress is like a warning light to us. It’s really our body’s reminder to regulate ourselves and to find balance. When you start to see signs of stress in your physical body, you’re not sleeping as much, or you’re more agitated, it’s your body telling you that you need to regulate your stress.”
Effective Ways to Relieve Stress Quickly
If you feel like your warning light is going off and your body is out of balance, Dr. Sage shares that there are several things you can do to reduce your feelings of stress quickly, yet effectively. “These are going to sound hokey at first,” she admits, “but they really are the strategies that work.”
The first strategy that Dr. Sage recommends is breathing. “Take intentional deep breaths,” suggests Dr. Sage, which involves taking a series of deep inhales and exhales. Other relaxing breathing techniques include inhaling and exhaling to a count of four and box breathing. Box breathing is when you inhale, hold the breath, exhale, then hold before inhaling again.
Another way to relieve stress quickly is with kinesthetic activities, also referred to as hands-on activities. This includes doing things such as singing, moving your body, shaking it out, and walking outside. “The movement processes the chemicals involved with stress out of the body,” says Dr. Sage.
Stress also has a way of depleting your energy. What’s the solution when you’re feeling low on energy due to increased stress? “We have to find the things that put the juice in our batteries,” says Dr. Sage, adding that it’s important to recognize that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else.
For example, while you might find that time with friends helps increase your energy levels while reducing your stress, others may experience the same effect by spending less time with friends. Another example is music. Some people play loud music as a way to de-stress while, for others, it’s soft music that provides this effect. Consider what makes you feel less stressed, then do it when you feel your stress levels start to rise.
It can also help to keep a positive mindset. We simply feel better when we’re positive, but positive thinking might have health advantages as well. One is that it may protect against inflammatory damage caused by stress, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Other benefits include contributing to better decision-making and a greater focus on long-term goals.
Being positive is beneficial to patients too. “When you have a positive mindset, you pass that on to the people around you,” says Dr. Sage. So, you can help your patients experience less stress and more positivity by keeping your own mindset in a positive space.
Professional Help Available to Healthcare Workers
If you try to relieve your stress but nothing seems to work, it may be time to seek professional help. Dr. Sage recommends starting within your own healthcare system by accessing your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if one is available. Several EAPs include mental health benefits. Ask if yours is one.
“There are also a lot of on-demand apps that are available at a low cost or discounted rate for healthcare workers,” she adds. Download one and you have access to a mental health professional anytime—and from anywhere—that you need them.
Don’t forget to ask your friends for recommendations. One of them might be seeing a therapist that they’re happy with and would be glad to give you their name.
You may even find support in a social media group. “I belong to social support groups on Facebook, and it’s been life-changing,” says Dr. Sage. Before joining a group, consider whether you have to answer questions to gain entry. If so, this is a sign that it may be moderated, which can lead to more respectful responses. Also, think about whether the comments on the page align with your beliefs. If they don’t, look for another group instead.
“There are a lot of times when we experience higher levels of stress because we care, because we want to do good, because we want people to be well,” says Dr. Sage. But there is one thing she wants you to remember: “You deserve just as much compassion as you give to your patients and their families. You’re supposed to care about yourself first.” Finding ways to relieve your stress can be a good first step in this process.
Christina M. DeBusk is a freelance writer who uses her passion for health and wellness to help healthcare businesses and professionals better reach their target audience.
Disclaimer: The viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at Healthcare Staffing Innovations, LLC.