C-Force: Stress Is Taking a Toll. Will It Result in Lasting Damage?
In late 2021, inside Cleveland Clinic South Pointe Hospital, one room outside the intensive care unit had been prepped for a special kind of healing. According to a post on the Cleveland Clinic website, once a clinic worker stepped inside, they found a room decorated with a "massage chair, foot massager, sound machine, salt lamp, yoga mat and other items." The walls were "adorned with calming nature pictures and decals that read 'relax, refresh, renew.'" The room also contained a binder with information on all the wellness programs offered to clinic employees. This would be the first of five wellness and relaxation rooms set aside for caregivers who have worked tirelessly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's been a difficult two years. People are exhausted. We wanted to provide caregivers a little stress relief and time for themselves," says Erica Shields, director of nursing for emergency services for the ICU and surgical and ambulatory care clinics at the hospital.
"While the hospital doesn't track use of the rooms, caregivers have placed notes in the suggestion boxes expressing their gratitude," the post goes on to say. An email from a paramedic from the emergency department read: "I can't say enough good things about that (massage) chair. My shoulder was sore before using it. After, my pain was gone, and I had a really good sleep at home."
"This is very personal. It allows people to get away from the lights and constant barrage of noise on their own time and choose what they want to do to relax," says Colleen Wisniewski, the hospital's director of nursing for surgical services.
The post also points out that these much-needed rooms for refuge were made possible by a philanthropic donation earmarked for employee wellness. "Good on you," I say to the gifting patron. Hospital facilities such as this, or those designed for a similar purpose, should be the mandatory minimum a hospital provides for their caregivers. For too long their health has been at risk.
A recent post by Harvard Health on understanding stress response makes it clear. Too many people -- not just health services workers but all of us -- are finding it hard to "put the brakes on stress." Chronic low-level stress keeps certain glandular activity activated. It is fittingly described as "much like a motor that is idling too high for too long." After a while, this "idling" effect on the body (our engine) can create any of the multitude of health problems associated with chronic stress.
"A stressful situation -- whether something environmental such as a looming work deadline, or psychological such as persistent worry about losing a job -- can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes," says Harvard Health. "A stressful incident can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Muscles tense and beads of sweat appear." These changes can happen quickly. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response can take a toll on the body, affecting both physical and psychological health.
It is no news to you that in today's world, triggering stressors and sources of anxiety seem almost too many to count. And all, say the experts, if not defused can lead to overwhelming stress. What this means as far as lasting health consequences, as well as lessons to be learned, is that it could be years, maybe even decades, down the line before being unconditionally verified.
In a recent article from Time magazine titled "4 Ways That the Pandemic Changed How We See Ourselves," reporter Nayantara Dutta makes a blunt assessment of where we stand. "After more than two years of pandemic life, it seems like we've changed as people. But how? In the beginning, many wished for a return to normal, only to realize that this might never be possible."
It makes you wonder, all this talk about a return to normal or even a "new normal." It still feels unclear right now what that would be. Whatever it is, it looks more like a new start than a continuance of what was, which I think is her point. It presents us with an opportunity "to think more deeply about who we are and what we're looking for," she says. "The more we accept that we are no longer the same people after this crisis, the easier it will be for us to reconcile who we are now and who we want to become."
As for the constant stress, people can learn techniques to counter it, such as physical activity. "Going into your community to help can be a proactive way to find stress relief," says a Cleveland Clinic post on how to cope. Also, practicing mindfulness, which the National Institutes of Health describes as "the ancient practice of living in the moment by taking in all that's around you without judgment or preconceived notions."
But, for most people, none may prove to be a cure-all. As Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, explains to the New York Times, a regular practice of gratitude and altruism can counter a negative mindset. Empathy is the thing that drives the connection between people. There may never be a more important time for people, for their own sense of well-being, to volunteer or take up a cause to help those in need.
And, if you're looking to find a small way to start showing gratitude and empathy, try this: When appropriate, sit down and simply write a thank-you note. "(It) is more powerful than you think," says Harvard Health. While most people consider showing an expression of gratitude a nice gesture, "many people struggle to do it," they say. As suggested by research published in a 2018 issue of Psychological Science, writing thank-you notes "is not just good manners. It can have a strong psychological effect for both the sender and receiver." And, if you think that the recipient of your message might feel awkward or dismissive receiving it, think again.
According to Harvard Health, for the study, "researchers from the University of Texas asked 334 people to write a letter of gratitude to someone who'd done something nice for them and then to guess the recipient's reaction. Greatly underestimated was how positive it made the recipient feel." This misimpression "may explain why more people don't engage in expressions of gratitude," say the researchers. They had hoped their report would help people understand the gesture's impact and help folks write thank-you notes more often. But then, the pandemic hit. Maybe now is a perfect time for this small but important gesture to begin to take hold and grow.
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