When Anxiety Strikes at Work, Here Are Seven Ways to Calm Yourself Down
Working in healthcare is a recipe for stress and burnout these days—one that can trigger anxiety, despair, and even panic. These seven tactics can help you a grip on your emotions and get back to work.
Nashville, TN (January 2021)—We all have those moments when work is just too much. And if you’re working on the frontlines in healthcare right now, it may be happening more than ever. Maybe another patient just died, or a family member is hysterical and there’s nothing you can do, or your supervisor just announced that the COVID unit is now full. Whatever the reason, you suddenly feel triggered, overwhelmed, and on the verge of panic. You know you need to keep it together, but frankly, you feel you’re about to fall apart.
Diana Hendel, PharmD says everyone in healthcare needs an action plan for handling those triggering moments.
“Fighting as hard as you can for your patients 24/7 takes a toll, especially after enduring nearly a year of COVID-related traumatic stress,” says Dr. Hendel, coauthor along with Dr. Mark Goulston of Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020, ISBN: 978-0-7852-4462-2, $17.99). “But when you are armed with the resources to recenter yourself during periods of distress, you can deal with those triggering moments, recover, and get back to work.”
Why Cope When You Can Heal? shares therapeutic approaches that are currently used to effectively treat traumatic stress and introduces powerful exercises to help you move through the trauma and further your healing. Read on for some tools and resources you can turn to anytime you feel triggered at work by traumatic stress.
Take a few minutes to get grounded. Grounding is a great way to reduce anxiety and arrive in the here and now. Use it anytime you feel carried away by anxious thoughts or feelings, or triggered by upsetting memories and flashbacks.
- Find a comfortable place to sit (or stand). If sitting, rest your hands on your legs. Feel the fabric of your clothing. Notice its color and texture.
- Next, bring your awareness to your body. Stretch your neck from side to side. Relax your shoulders. Tense and relax your calves. Stomp your feet.
- Look around and notice the sights, sounds, and scents around you for a few moments.
- Name fifteen to twenty things you can see. For example, the floor, a light, a desk, a sink.
- As you keep looking around, remind yourself that “The flashback or emotion I felt is in the past. Right now, in this moment, I’m safe.”
Harness the power of deep breathing. We tend to hold our breath whenever we are stressed, but this only exacerbates feelings of anxiety and panic. Instead use “box breathing” to calm yourself and heighten your concentration. Box breathing is the technique of taking slow, deep, full breaths. Here’s a tutorial for when you’re feeling triggered.
Slowly exhale your breath through your mouth. Consciously focus on clearing all the oxygen from your lungs. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for four slow counts. Hold your breath for four more slow counts. On the next four counts, exhale again through your mouth until your lungs are empty. Hold your breath again for a final slow count of four beats.
Reach for an amulet to help anchor you…Carry a small reminder of what you love about your life and focus on it if you feel triggered and need to center yourself. It might be a photo of your kids or pet, a small rock you picked up on a scenic nature hike, or a special necklace. Think of the gratitude you feel for your life whenever you look at this token.
…Or grab a human lifeline. Make sure there’s at least one person you can reach out to when feeling triggered. Ideally, your workplace will have a formal support group to help you deal with the stressors of the pandemic. But if not, consider forming your own informal “fire team” consisting of the colleagues fighting by your side. Not only can this team meet a few times a week to talk through the challenges of the crisis, but you can also reach out to a member anytime you need support. And if you are feeling truly overwhelmed or desperate, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Reach out to your company’s EAP or contact a mental health professional.
Let your feelings out (when possible). At times you may find you need to step away from your duties for a few minutes and give those intense emotions some “breathing room.” Try to move to a different room so you can cry or discreetly express your feelings. Sometimes you need to release the stress that’s built up in your body, and finding a private place to let the tears fall or vent for a few minutes can lighten your stress and enable you to get back to work.
Play a mind game. “If there is no way to speak to someone else and you need comfort in the moment, imagine talking to someone who loves you,” says Dr. Goulston. “Imagine that they are listening and lovingly holding and encouraging you. As you hear them talking and walking you through it, you will feel their love and belief in you. This kind of mental pep talk can be a bridge until you are able to speak your feelings to somebody in person.”
Get out of the building for a few minutes. If at all possible, try to get outside for a few minutes of fresh air. Take deep breaths, stretch your arms and legs, and take in the gifts of nature around you. And if possible find someone else who is on a break and invite them for a ten-minute walk so the two of you can blow off steam.
“It’s important to acknowledge your feelings—no matter how inconvenient they may be—when you are in crisis,” concludes Dr. Hendel. “When you are triggered, there’s no benefit in suppressing your emotions because they will only intensify and surface again and again until you deal with them. And if you are not okay, there’s no way you can be there for your patients. Face and release what’s bothering you, and then you will be able to keep going.”
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About the Authors:
Mark Goulston, MD, FAPA
Dr. Mark Goulston is the coauthor of Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020) and Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, Spring 2021). He is a board-certified psychiatrist, fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA NPI, and a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. He is the creator of Theory Y Executive Coaching—which he provides to CEOs, presidents, founders, and entrepreneurs—and is a TEDx and international keynote speaker.
He is the creator and developer of Surgical Empathy, a process to help people recover and heal from PTSD, prevent suicide in teenagers and young adults, and help organizations overcome implicit bias.
Dr. Goulston is the author or principal author of seven prior books, including PTSD for Dummies, Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior, Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In, and Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life. He hosts the My Wakeup Call podcast, where he speaks with influencers about their purpose in life and the wakeup calls that led them there. He also is the co-creator and moderator of the multi-honored documentary Stay Alive: An Intimate Conversation About Suicide Prevention.
He appears frequently as a human psychology and behavior subject-area expert across all media, including news outlets ABC, NBC, CBS, and BBC News, as well as CNN, Today, Oprah, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune,Harvard Business Review, Business Insider, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and Westwood One. He was also featured in the PBS special “Just Listen.”
Diana Hendel, PharmD
Dr. Diana Hendel is the coauthor of Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020) and Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, Spring 2021). She is an executive coach and leadership consultant, former hospital CEO, and author of Responsible: A Memoir, a riveting and deeply personal account of leading during and through the aftermath of a deadly workplace trauma.
As the CEO of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital, Hendel led one of the largest acute care, trauma, and teaching hospital complexes on the West Coast. She has served in leadership roles in numerous community organizations and professional associations, including chair of the California Children’s Hospital Association, executive committee member of the Hospital Association of Southern California, vice chair of the Southern California Leadership Council, chair of the Greater Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, board member of the California Society of Health-System Pharmacists, and leader-in-residence of the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at California State University Long Beach.
She earned a BS in biological sciences from UC Irvine and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from UC San Francisco. She has spoken about healthcare and leadership at regional and national conferences and at TEDx SoCal on the topic of “Childhood Obesity: Small Steps, Big Change.”
About the Book:
Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020, ISBN: 978-0-7852-4462-2, $17.99) is available in bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.