As a health-care worker, you spend your career caring about others. You listen to their fears, and you stand guard through their pain and suffering. And, all too often, you’re there when they take their final breaths.
And worse yet, many times you’re the person who has to inform families about their loved one’s passing, creating even more strain. And even worse still, you’re the unfortunate soul who has the unwelcome job of telling a patient that he or she is dying.
Continued exposure to death and trauma can – and often does – negatively affect health care professionals. Many suffer silently from compassion fatigue, brought on when they care too much for too long. It can not only affect your work, it can lead to depression in your personal life. Increased feelings of personal fault and guilt are also negative side effects of continued exposure.
No amount of nursing or medical school can prepare you for the death and trauma you’ll experience throughout your career. And for many, it doesn’t get any easier with time in the field. But, for your personal well-being, you need to find a way to deal with its effects on your life. And while there’s no magic button to make it all just go away, there are steps you can take to protect yourself.
Acknowledge your pain
Too often many health care professionals act like they’ve got it all together and nothing fazes them. “It’s all part of the job and I’m the job.”
It’s OK to admit to others – and yourself – that you’re not OK. It’s OK to say I’m having trouble accepting the death of a patient and I need help dealing with my feelings. It’s OK to say I need to talk to someone.
Talk about it
It’s OK to lean on family, friends and coworkers when you’re feeling overwhelmed, but you should also talk to someone trained in helping people cope with traumatic situations. Someone who can do more than listen and just be there for you is great, but you also need someone who knows how to help you overcome the trauma you’ve experienced.
Emotions aren’t bad
It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to be sad. Holding in your emotions will only prolong your healing and oftentimes makes things worse in the short term.
Take a minute
If you find yourself getting overwhelmed after a traumatic incident, walk away. Spend a few minutes alone and regroup yourself. It’s amazing what a 2-minute timeout can do for your perspective.
Take some time when things aren’t hectic to find a special place in your work environment that you know you can go to be alone. When you’re emotional is not the time to be looking for a sanctuary.
Learn to relax
Research and try out different relaxation techniques. It can be as simple as deep breathing or stretching, or you can take up meditation or yoga. It doesn’t matter what fits for you, just as long as you can momentarily escape with it.
Do your best
If you lose a patient, there’s no better feeling than knowing you did everything you can to help. Even if the patient is beyond medical help and the end is near, knowing you cared for them as best you could will help you cope with their passing. Even if it’s as simple as holding their hand and offering a smile, knowing you did your best will ward off questions of self-doubt later.
Take your vacations
You should be taking steps to stop burnout before it starts. If you’re not taking the time to care for yourself when things are going well, you’ll certainly not be prepared to do so when the pressure is on.
You’re given time off for a reason. Take it.
Set up boundaries
That doesn’t mean walling yourself off so that you’ll never get hurt. You’ll be more hurt in the end by doing that. What is does mean is understanding yourself and knowing what you can and can’t handle.
Having boundaries in place to protect yourself will help you not get beyond your limits when you’re faced with death and trauma. Also, acknowledge that your boundaries and capabilities will look different than someone else’s, and become OK with that.
A final thought
In the career you’ve chosen, there’s no escaping trauma and death. It’s part of the job. Taking the time to find the coping mechanism that works for you will mean it doesn’t have to be part of your life.
Thanks for reading,