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Beginning to Heal from COVID-19 Stress

The COVID-19 pandemic turned our world upside down in a short span of time, and it especially impacted the lives of healthcare workers (HCWs) on the front lines. The events of the last year have been continuously traumatic. Now that vaccines are approved and being administered, things are finally looking up – but if you’re feeling worse than you were before, you’re not the only one.

A Year of Fight-or-Flight

In the face of danger, the human brain goes into fight-or-flight mode and enacts biochemical responses to help us avoid harm. Adrenaline rushes through the body, oxygen and blood are directed to major muscle groups, and your sensitivity to pain decreases.[i] Our stress response works well for short-term threats, but long-term stress can overwhelm our ability to cope. The COVID-19 pandemic has come with long-term, sustained stress and trauma for most HCWs – and you can’t heal from trauma while it’s still happening. Mentally, you’ve been in survival mode this whole time. This kind of shock often manifests as numbness – while you’ve probably had your fair share of bad days and breakdowns, it’s likely that you’ve also started compartmentalizing or distancing yourself from your experiences and emotions.

Shifting Out of Survival Response

Now that you can picture an end in sight, your brain is calming down. This might be the first time that you’re starting to truly process what happened and acknowledge all of the devastation and loss that has occurred. It’s becoming clear just how much has changed, like local restaurants that have gone out of business or friendships that have grown distant. You’re grieving, probably for multiple things: loved ones who passed away, strained family relationships, financial stability, lost time, and even just the concept of normalcy.

Confronting Grief

The losses many are facing might hit you especially hard as an HCW – you gave so much to fight this pandemic but are getting the same results as everyone else - and are dealing with the added trauma of being an HCW during this time. During and after a large-scale disaster like COVID-19, there are a lot of factors that can interrupt the normal grieving process. The losses you’re grieving might be exacerbated by feelings of anger about having to work so tirelessly throughout the pandemic, or fear that it will happen all over again. These added stressors increase the risk of complicated or traumatic grief[ii] – grief that doesn’t go away and prevents you from returning to your typical life.

Beginning to Heal

You can’t rush your recovery from prolonged stress or trauma, but there are a number of ways to help yourself move forward:

Give yourself time to adjust. Once your sense of safety and security has been taken away, it won’t come back overnight. It may take a while to feel like yourself again – that is completely normal. Anticipate both good days and bad days as we transition into a post-crisis world.

Seek support from people who care about you. Social support is crucial in healing from trauma and sharing your story can be a powerful way to process your thoughts and feelings. Find people who will empathize with you – they can be other HCWs, close friends, or anyone who you trust and feel safe with.

Focus on healthy behaviors. Some self-care basics like staying hydrated, eating nutritious meals, and getting quality rest may have fallen through the cracks (or not been possible) while you were working through the height of the pandemic. Taking care of your physical body increases your ability to cope with stress, so be sure to prioritize this when you can.

Establish or re-establish routines. After a year of frequent changes and surprises, adding structure to your life can help you feel more stable and in control of your life. Little things like a 15-minute relaxation routine before bed can have lasting changes.

Seek help if your feelings are persistent or interrupting your daily life. If you’re putting in the work to move forward but just can’t, you may need some extra help with your healing. Take a mental health screen to see if you’re dealing with symptoms of a mental health condition like depression or PTSD. For immediate support 24/7, you can reach out to Magellan Health’s COVID-19 first responder crisis line at (800) 327-7451, the Disaster Distress Helpline at (800) 985-5990, or the Crisis Text Line by texting MHA to 741-741.

[ii] SAMHSA. (2017, December). Tips for survivors: Coping with grief after a disaster or traumatic event.