Every day, medical professionals face the stress of emergency situations. They place themselves between their patients and life-threatening injuries and illnesses.
Far too often, the healthcare industry overlooks the toll this work takes on our mental health. Anxiety in healthcare professionals is extremely common, but when left unaddressed, it can be dangerous.
Nurses, EMS personnel, and doctors with anxiety disorders do not need to be discouraged. With the right education and coping methods, being a nurse, physician, or EMT with anxiety won’t hold you back. You’ll be able to continue to provide quality care to every patient and quality self-care as well.
What does anxiety look like for healthcare professionals?
The Guardian reports that “doctors are more prone to mental health problems, it turns out, than any other profession.”
As medical professionals, we work in highly stressful situations. We work long hours and face an incorrect yet pervasive stigma that to do our jobs well, we must bury our personal feelings. All of these elements can lead to anxiety.
Anxiety is a normal emotion that developed over years of evolution to keep us safe. Our brain recognizes dangerous situations and often signals a rush of adrenaline and a flight-or-fight response.
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as, “An emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure . . . sweating, trembling, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat.”
Constant or overwhelming feelings of anxiety are not healthy. Individuals with anxiety disorder may feel a sense of unrelenting worry or stress over work or home life. They consistently feel on-edge, are irritable, have difficulty concentrating or sleeping, and are unable to control their fear and worry.
The Dangers of Ignoring Anxiety
When medical professionals ignore anxiety symptoms, they put themselves and their patients at risk. But physicians, emergency providers, and nurses are often hesitant to open up about mental health challenges.
A Beyond Blue survey asked medical professionals if they would continue to trust a fellow professional who they learned was struggling with mental health. Many said they would have reservations and take pause.
However, fighting anxiety alone can lead to tragic results. Each year, more than 300 physicians commit suicide. Suicide rates among first responders are 10 times the rate in the general population.
It’s natural to have a surge of adrenaline during a cardiac emergency, but when feelings of anxiety prevent you from thinking clearly and responding effectively, it’s time to take a closer look at your mental health.
Methods for Coping with Anxiety
If you are experiencing anxiety as a medical professional, you are not alone or in a hopeless situation. There are many steps you can take to restore your mental health so you can continue to do your job well.
It’s important to work with a mental health professional who will be able to prescribe any needed medication and teach you methods for calming your brain and regaining control of your thoughts.
As you begin, here are a few suggestions for coping with anxiety:
- Talk to someone. The most important first step is to open up to someone else about what you are experiencing. Speak to a family member, close friend, or colleague, and share your concerns. Building a support network will help you for years to come.
- Identify ways to decrease stress. Healthcare is a stressful industry. It’s important to make a conscious effort to release the stress that builds up during your work. There are many ways to de-stress, including exercise, hobbies, getting outdoors in the sunlight, spending time relaxing with family or friends, or even indulging in a massage or acupuncture. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you are doing something that brings you joy and helps you relax.
- Practice breathing and meditation. When you start to feel anxious, breathing is one of the best ways to help calm your body and mind. Take time for meditation or exercise that focuses on breathing, like yoga.
- Build confidence through education. Anxiety can make it easy to doubt yourself and your medical skills. When you face an emergency situation, you may start to feel unqualified or question your judgment. Take advantage of opportunities to continue your education so you can better learn the skills you need to face challenges at work.
- Keep a journal. Keep a journal where you can record thoughts from your day. This can help you process the emotions that inevitably come from working with patients. Acknowledge the hard times and the losses, but also be sure to acknowledge the victories and things to be grateful for.
- Find ways to simplify your life. With work, family, and social pressures building up, it can be difficult to find extra space to breathe. But there are many ways you can maximize your time and simplify your life so you can get needed downtime to regroup. If you are finding it difficult to squeeze in time to exercise, try doing something active together with your family or friends so you can get some exercise and social time at the same time. If you’re finding it difficult to stay on top of your work and continuing education, take critical courses like BLS or ACLS recertifications online. Finding small ways to save time will help you prioritize, have better balance, and provide better care.
As medical professionals support and encourage each other, the industry will be able to destigmatize mental health and provide a better environment for healthcare workers and their patients.
- Aitkenhead D. Panic, chronic anxiety and burnout: Doctors at breaking Point. The Guardian. March 10, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/10/panic-chronic-anxiety-burnout-doctors-breaking-point
- Anxiety. American Psychological Association. Date unknown. Accessed Feb. 21, 2020. https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/
- Felman A. What to know about anxiety. Medical News Today. Jan. 11, 2020. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323454
- Beyondblue. National mental health survey of doctors and medical students. Beyondblue.org.au. January 2019. https://www.beyondblue.org.au/docs/default-source/research-project-files/bl1132-report—nmhdmss-full-report_web
- Venteicher W. Increasing suicide rates among first responders spark concern. FireRescue1. March 19, 2017. https://www.firerescue1.com/fire-ems/articles/increasing-suicide-rates-among-first-responders-spark-concern-TkuBikGnO3vPHIb3/
- Jones KMD. Overcoming the stigma of mental illness in physicians: My story. AAFP. May 15, 2014. https://www.aafp.org/news/blogs/freshperspectives/entry/overcoming_the_stigma_of_mental.html