Managing Stress and Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond
During times of stress and uncertainty, it’s crucial for EMS practitioners to maintain their psychological and emotional health. By staying
healthy mentally, EMS practitioners can continue to be there for their communities and their families, while protecting their own well-being.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes in people’s lives and routines that were once un-thinkable. In the early days of the pandemic, EMS practitioners experienced the sense of loss and disorientation due to lockdowns, cancelled schools and disrupted day-to-day activities that so many in the general public faced.
As the virus surged in communities around the nation, EMS practitioners also had to grapple with the stress of responding to a flood of critically ill patients who were suffering and dying because of the virus.
On top of that, EMS practitioners dealt with the worry of knowing they could potentially be ex-posed to the virus on the job—or worse, bring the virus home to their families, said Lauren Young,
a licensed clinical social worker and coordinator of the medical social work and mobile integrated health programs at Palm Beach Fire Rescue in south Florida.
Despite the enormous challenges EMS practitioners faced on the front lines of the pandemic, some gained a strong sense of purpose and motivation to help. Knowing their community needed them helped them push through their own fear and exhaustion. “Some felt, ‘I was born to do this. I was born to take care of people. There is a storm coming, but I am going to face this down,’” Young said.
A RANGE OF EMOTIONS
During periods of stress and uncertainty, it’s normal for EMS practitioners to feel a range of emotions, including fear, anger and grief. This may manifest in physical symptoms such as a racing heart, difficulty sleeping, gastrointestinal upset or irritability.
Stress, whether due to the pandemic or the psychological strain and physical demands of the job that EMS practitioners experience even under normal circumstances, also has the potential to trigger or exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If these feelings start to become overwhelming and interfere with the ability to work or enjoy other aspects of life, or if the negative feelings trigger substance use or suicidal thoughts, it’s important to reach out for help.
“Sometimes we have to let ourselves feel these negative feelings. We cannot go above, below or beside our feelings. We have to face them head on and go through them,” Young said. “But when the feelings start to impact our day-to-day experience—impacting our relationships or work, or causing you to drink too much or use drugs—it’s important to recognize that and to get help.”
Young offered these tips to EMS practitioners to cope during the pandemic and beyond.
SPEND TIME WITH FRIENDS AND FAMILY.
Connecting with others, by phone or video if necessary, can reduce anxiety and relieve symptoms of depression. “It’s part of our fabric and DNA that we want to be around others. Having a phone call where you get to vent may just be exactly what you need.”
TAKE TIME OUT FOR A HOBBY.
Don’t have one? Try baking, gardening or reading.
Getting moving releases natural, mood-boosting hormones.
Research has shown that meditation can reduce anxiety, relieve pain and actually produce measurable changes in the brain. You only need about 10 minutes a day of deep breathing and quiet focus to reap many of the benefits. There are lots of apps that offer guided meditation to help get you going.
LISTEN TO MUSIC.
Music has a powerful effect on the brain. Studies have shown that music can lower anxiety and boost the mood.
Soaking up the sunshine and feeling the grass or sand between your toes offers well-documented relief from symptoms of depression.
TAKE A BREAK FROM NEWS MEDIA AND SOCIAL MEDIA.
“In EMS, we need to stay in the know about the virus and the news. But limit how often you check it,” Young says. “Try looking at the news or social media once in the morning and once at night.”
TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR, A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL OR CALL 211.
Many people are having a hard time dealing with, well…all of it. Frontline healthcare workers are suffering from high rates of severe anxiety, depression and symptoms of PTSD, research is finding.
A study of 700 ICU healthcare workers in England published in January 2021, in the journal Occupational Health, found that nearly half (45 percent) met the clinical criteria for a serious mental health disorder, including PTSD, problem drinking, severe anxiety or severe depression.
One in eight reported frequent thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Similar research has not yet been done in EMS practitioners, but there is little doubt that COVID-19 has taken its toll on many frontline medical workers, including paramedics and EMTs.
If you’re struggling, reach out for help. 211 is available in most areas of the country and
provides callers with information on mental health resources and social services.
EMS agency managers also need to make sure they are looking out for employees who are struggling, and providing resources such as employee assistance programs, peer support and family support. “Make emotional health part of your ‘mission focus,’” Young advised.
Article provided by NAEMT.
NAEMT Mental Health Resiliency Coordinator Course
If someone in your agency is struggling with a mental health problem, where is the best place to send them for help? How can you tell if someone’s behavior or mood falls within the bounds of normal ups and downs, or if they are exhibiting signs of a more serious mental health problem?
NAEMT’s Mental Health Resiliency Coordinator Course prepares EMS personnel to provide peer-to-peer support, deliver resiliency resources and
tools tailored to the needs of their agency’s personnel, and navigate their colleagues to appropriate mental health resources. The course was developed by NAEMT in partnership with TMS Health Quality Institute and with a generous contribution from FirstNet, Built with AT&T.
During eight one-hour virtual learning modules, participants learn de-escalation techniques, and listening and response skills, to help them communicate with their colleagues who may be struggling. The course does not train EMS practitioners to become mental health providers—instead, the goal is to help EMS professionals understand the threats to mental health, identify the symptoms of stress and psychological trauma, and navigate those who need help to the right care.
· Psychological threats to EMS personnel, the role of the EMS mental health resiliency coordinator and course learning objectives
· Identifying symptoms and signs of mental health stress and trauma
· Developing listening and response skills
· De-escalation techniques
· Taking care of your mental health
· Understanding community support systems
· Navigating those in need to the right care
· Next steps: Building your agency’s peer-to-peer mental health resiliency program
The course is scheduled to launch in May 2021.
NAEMT is the nation’s largest and most diverse EMS membership organization. To join, visit naemt.org or call 800-34-NAEMT.