Earthquakes. Blizzards. Hurricanes. Natural disasters disrupt the daily functions of health care and leave nurses feeling strained and overwhelmed. Finding and practicing stress management strategies during these events can help nurses cope with stress and mitigate its effects.
Day to day, nurses are on the front lines caring for patients and balancing various clinical tasks. But when a natural disaster strikes, the workload can become more strenuous and demanding. Challenges such as short staffing, larger workloads, and limited supplies can make nursing even harder — especially with the looming threat of power failure.
Most healthcare facilities and organizations practice crisis management and disaster preparedness plans, which can include staff training programs and evacuation and sheltering-in-place exercises. They also may have special communication plans about patient care and supportive resources for disaster responders for these scenarios.
However, natural disasters are often unpredictable and can lead to unforeseen predicaments. This means nurses and other healthcare staff must adjust in real time to these disruptive situations.
An example of this was recently seen in Buffalo, New York, where an aggressive winter storm brought nearly 49 inches of snow. Because of impassable roads, limited visibility, heavy snow, and freezing temperatures, nurses across the area worked longer shifts and had no choice but to adapt to short staffing and higher nurse-to-patient ratios.
During critical events, nurses and other healthcare professionals may have to work around the clock, sometimes for multiple days. Rola Aamar, PhD, Partner in Behavioral Health Solutions at Relias said because of stressful circumstances that come with these events, nurses may be less attentive to their own physiological and emotional needs. This lack of attention can then lead to higher stress levels and a reduced ability to manage stress, according to Aamar.
With high-pressure working conditions like these, it’s imperative for nurses to find moments of respite. The following strategies can aid in managing stress during natural disasters.
1. Find moments for yourself
As a nurse, you know all too well that time for yourself is precious during a normal shift. But when the turbulence of a natural disaster is added, this can seem impossible. As unattainable as this can seem, taking care of your own needs is a must.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), one approach to individual stress management is self-awareness. This allows you to shift your focus to the physical and mental needs you’re experiencing in the moment. And during natural disasters, it’s especially important to listen to what your body is saying. This could mean taking a few minutes to drink water and eat a healthy snack or meal, practice a mindfulness activity such as breathing exercises, or call a loved one.
Moments of self-care are vital components during critical events, according to Aamar. So choose an activity that works best for you in that instant. However, if you find yourself experiencing more physical responses to stress, you may want to use a more mindful coping technique.
“More advanced coping skills like deep breathing, identifying and talking through emotions, and meditation can also help regulate our central nervous system,” said Aamar who started her career as a behavioral health clinician.
These types of actions can help reduce your body’s physical responses to stress, including slowing your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and causing less sweating.
In addition, SAMHSA highlights this acronym that can help you identify these moments:
HALT reminds you that you’re human just like the patients you care for, and it’s OK to stop and take care of yourself.
2. Social support and debriefing
In your nursing role, you not only work in complex medical environments but also face numerous physical and emotional demands. When a natural disaster occurs, these demands are amplified.
Social support during critical events can be a strategy to reduce feelings of stress and burnout. One study found that nurses with social support from colleagues who dealt with the same emotional demands in the same environment more effectively reduced their stress. In fact, peer support like this can be the best defense against physical and emotional pain, according to SAMHSA.
Like social support, debriefing is another approach to reduce stress during and after a traumatic event like a natural disaster. Debriefing allows nurses or other healthcare professionals to pause, reflect, and discuss on critical or traumatic events. These reflective periods offer moments of respite, while encouraging discussions on what caused the distress and practical ways to move forward.
A study on coping strategies for work-related stress in nurses touched on how some respondents reported feeling less stressed after participating in a debriefing. One participant mentioned that she always debriefs before leaving work, even if it means staying late, adding that this practice helps her relax more quickly.
3. Practice self-compassion
During disasters, nurses are often the first to render aid to victims. In these situations, it can sometimes be a challenge to maintain resilience. However, practicing self-compassion can be an effective tool in recovering from stress.
For instance, the Texas Nurses Foundation developed the Care for the Caregiver toolkit that emphasizes the importance of coping strategies for nurses before, during, and after natural disasters. In this kit, they highlight how practicing self-compassion can mitigate the effects of disaster-related stress. According to their guide, examples include finding humor in your day, engaging in meditation, and practicing forgiveness — especially with yourself.
Many studies highlight the effectiveness that practicing self-compassion has in reducing conditions like burnout, compassion fatigue, and moral injury. When you’re self-compassionate, you’re empathetic to your feelings and behaviors in times of distress. By being gentler with yourself — especially during critical events — you’re not only developing your resilience, you’re allowing yourself to feel comfort and respect. In the face of crises or other stressful events, self-compassion is a resource that “promotes emotional stability, well-being, and thriving.”
Nurses and other healthcare professionals play pivotal roles during disasters. Between balancing patient care, charting, and other important tasks, nurses are at a higher risk of developing adverse psychological effects from these events.
Stress management strategies help us navigate the unanticipated ups and downs of life, said Aamar. “The more coping skills we consistently practice, the greater the diversity of skills we have access to during times of duress,” she said.
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