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How to Build Your Emotional Personal Protective Equipment

As COVID-19 continues to impact the U.S. at high rates, frontline workers need more than just medical supplies. To handle the stress and uncertainty that working through the pandemic has brought, it’s crucial to build up your emotional Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as well. 

Focus on the Basics

The foundation of mental health and self-care is that you must attend to your most fundamental needs before you can fully attend to your psychological needs -or the needs of others. This includes things like diet, exercise, and sleep. 

When under stress, and especially when busy, it’s common to slip into eating meals that are quick and easy, rather than nutritious. Food fuels both our bodies and minds, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need to function at your best. Meal prepping can be helpful if you can spare a few hours, or maybe your partner or a friend can take care of it for you. Signing up for a meal delivery service may be worth the money for you during this time as well. Ensure you’re consuming enough food too – it may be hard to make time for a full meal, so try to work more healthy snacks into your day to keep your energy up. If you find yourself forgetting to eat, set reminders on your watch or phone. Staying hydrated is crucial as well, as it impacts your energy level and mood. It can be tough to keep up your water intake throughout the day, especially if you feel like you don’t have time to get to the restroom often. Try keeping a water bottle on you or in one of your most frequented spots and set up a buddy system at work so you can take bathroom breaks as needed. 

When work has you feeling drained, making time to exercise may be the last thing you want to do. But getting your heart rate up can go a long way in keeping your stress levels down. If an intense workout sounds too overwhelming, try a stretching sequence or going for a 30-minute walk. Anything that keeps your body moving is worth it - you may not feel a big impact immediately, but it will help you release some tension and keep your emotional baseline a bit steadier. 

Sticking to a regular sleep schedule is an important part of wellbeing but can be especially difficult if you’re working irregular hours. It may be impossible right now for you to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day - luckily, there are other ways for you to cue your brain that it’s time to get some rest. Try setting a bedtime routine. This can be as simple as washing your face and then reading for 10 minutes or turning on an essential oil diffuser and doing a short, guided meditation. What matters is doing it consistently before sleep, whether that’s at 11pm or 7am. If you’re still struggling to get sleep during the day, consider getting a white noise machine and some blackout shades for your room.

Stay Connected to Others

Interpersonal connection is one of the strongest protective factors against emotional distress. That’s part of why COVID-19 has led to such a significant mental health crisis - humans are social animals, and to combat this pandemic, we’ve had to change the way we interact with people. As a health care worker right now, your stress levels are likely significantly higher than usual. It’s important to avoid retreating into yourself - you deserve to let your feelings out! Whether with friends, colleagues, a mental health professional, or anyone else - give yourself time to vent about stressors and process your experiences. Don’t forget to build in some fun and uplifting social time as well. It may be hard to get your mind off this topic, but it isn’t healthy to think about work and the pandemic nonstop. Call a friend for some lighthearted catching up or plan a virtual movie watch party or game night for when your schedule allows. 

Use Your Time Off Strategically

If you’re dealing with less time off than you’re used to, you may be feeling overwhelmed – between working more hours and not having your usual time to decompress, it’s easy to freeze up and just zone out. But putting some forethought into how you will spend your time off can add some much-needed structure to your free time and help you better prepare for the hours you do spend working.

Think about what chores are absolutely necessary for you to do (it’s okay to let the minor ones slide), and plan out when you’ll take care of them. If you’re dreading them, try reframing – instead of “I need to clean the kitchen,” tell yourself “I deserve to cook and eat in a clean space.” Consider your own personal needs beyond your identity as a health care worker. If you’re an introvert who is exhausted from interacting with coworkers, patients, and families, it’s okay to use some of your days off to not speak to anyone (as long as you don’t let yourself slip into full isolation); if you’re an extrovert, picking up the phone and talking to a friend will probably help you recharge. Either way, build in time for an activity you like. It may be easier to lay in bed and watch TV all day, but that won’t boost your mood the way doing something you enjoy will. If you find it tough to get started, break it into baby steps. Want to go for a walk? Start with finding your shoes. Cooking up a new recipe? Gather all the ingredients first. Once you begin, that momentum will help you keep going.

Practice Your Coping Skills (and Find New Ones!)

There are so many strategies that we know to be effective in reducing distress. But everyone is different, and what works for someone else may not be all that helpful for you. Creating your own toolbox of coping skills may require a bit of trial and error.

Things like guided meditation, working out, and journaling are popular strategies, but don’t hesitate to get creative! Start some sort of craft - even just doodling with a pen and paper or breaking out an adult coloring book are great options. You can practice gratitude by naming three things you’re thankful for. These can be big things, like your health, or small things, like seeing a pretty flower on your way to work. Grab a good book to get lost in, start working on a puzzle, or zone out with a funny movie. If you’ve tried something in the past that hasn’t worked, give it another chance - you may find it helpful this time around!

Don’t only rely on these strategies for moments of immediate need - build some into your daily or weekly routine to strengthen your ability to tolerate distress as it comes.