Mental & Emotional Red Flags Doctors May Not Realize in Times of Crisis

Mental & Emotional Red Flags Doctors May Not Realize in Times of Crisis

Before COVID-19, being a physician was stressful. The physical, emotional, psychological, and administrative demands made burnout quite common. In January 2020, burnout impacted 42% of physicians. That number is a decrease from 46% five years prior, but what the number will be at the end of the pandemic remains to be seen.

Today, the term “burnout” cannot begin to describe what doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals are experiencing as COVID-19 rips through the healthcare system, affecting the people who keep it running. Overwhelming physical strain, fear, and anxiety can add up to a debilitating situation for medical professionals.

In order for physicians and other healthcare workers to provide adequate healthcare in the face of this unprecedented crisis, there must be a sufficient workforce to serve. Of course, each worker must be functioning at optimum levels in order to provide quality care for the incredibly high number of critically ill patients. Considering that these numbers could continue to surge for the foreseeable future, healthcare workers will have to maintain this workload for extended periods of time, which means a chronically stressful environment. That is a tall order.

In the midst of these demands, healthcare providers are juggling emotional stressors due to the brutal nature of this disease, the lack of personal protective equipment and the risk of exposing themselves and their families to the virus, while also adjusting to societal shifts as well as a completely different work environment.

Nurses and doctors have been holding the hands of critically ill patients with one hand and their phones with the other as some patients say goodbye to loved ones. The CDC has a term for this kind of stress: secondary traumatic stress, which is defined as stress reactions and symptoms resulting from exposure to another individual’s traumatic experiences.

Because of the rapid pace at which everything is changing for physicians and other healthcare professionals, they will often not recognize the mental and emotional red flags indicating their own mental and psychological trauma.

Even when they do recognize their own symptoms, many consider seeking assistance to be a sign of weakness. So instead, they often deal with it alone. The emotional pressure can sometimes lead to devastating consequences.

Secondary traumatic stress is not new or unique to COVID-19. Over a decade ago, Jo Shapiro, MD, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, recognized something had to be done to formalize care for the caregiver. Her ideas to create a support program for medical professionals resulted in the Center for Professionalism and Peer Support. The center’s mission is to support the well-being of medical professionals, thus enabling them to provide the best care possible to patients.

Coping Strategies for Medical Professionals

The CDC offers this guidance for reducing secondary traumatic stress:

  • Acknowledge that secondary traumatic stress can impact anyone helping families after a traumatic event.
  • Learn the symptoms including physical (fatigue, illness) and mental (fear, withdrawal, guilt).
  • Allow time for you and your family to recover from responding to the pandemic.
  • Create a menu of personal self-care activities that you enjoy, such as spending time with friends and family, exercising, or reading a book.
  • Take a break from media coverage of COVID-19.
  • Ask for help if you feel overwhelmed or concerned that COVID-19 is affecting your ability to care for your family and patients as you did before the outbreak.
May 15, 2020


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