Minutes of self-care may mitigate stress, trauma and numbness among frontline COVID-19 workers

Portrait of Catherine Cook-Cottone in front of books.

University at Buffalo self-care expert Catherine Cook-Cottone developed the mindful self-care scale to guide the measurement and improvement of self-care. Photographer: Douglas Levere

UB self-care expert provides small tips to de-stress for overwhelmed health care professionals

Release Date: April 20, 2020

“Their work is demanding, overwhelming, frightening and unpredictable. Self-care can be the one thing that’s predictable in their life. ”
Catherine Cook-Cottone, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology in the UB Graduate School of Education

BUFFALO, N.Y. – For health care professionals on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, practicing mindful self-care – even if for minutes each day – can help with avoiding burnout, says University at Buffalo self-care expert Catherine Cook-Cottone.

Mindful self-care, or maintaining awareness of and tending to one’s physical, mental and emotional needs, may also help health care professionals improve the care they provide to patients, she adds.

“Their work is demanding, overwhelming, frightening and unpredictable. Self-care can be the one thing that’s predictable in their life,” says Cook-Cottone, PhD, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology in the UB Graduate School of Education.

Neglecting physical and emotional needs can be catastrophic, especially for health care professionals, says Cook-Cottone, who also provides self-care training to humanitarian workers deployed to refugee camps and war zones through the United Nations Foundation’s Peace on Purpose program.

Providers may experience vicarious trauma and develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, develop stress-related illnesses, become numb and depersonalize patients, or turn to unhealthy habits to cope such as problem drinking or stress eating.

“The nervous system doesn’t understand what’s going on. It’s just experiencing stress,” says Cook-Cottone, who is also an expert on anxiety-based disorders. “If you’re starting to feel ineffective and overwhelmed, it’s important to know when to dial it back in.”

Small steps for a hectic schedule

Self-care will not get in the way of responsibilities, and health care professionals should not view it as homework, says Cook-Cottone. In fact, self-care can be implemented during daily activities or within brief moments throughout the workday.

A few practices include:

  • Use the 20 seconds needed to wash your hands as an opportunity to quickly meditate or pray as an offering to patients.
  • Schedule enjoyable activities. Proactively make your day better.
  • Practice grounding to reconnect with the physical environment. Routinely plant your feet into the floor or your body into a chair, and focus on being present.
  • De-stress with deep breaths. Using a count, breathe in on one and out on two.
  • Pair up with a partner to work on self-care and improve accountability.
  • Remember your “why.” Remind yourself why you’re passionate about health care by leaving messages on sticky notes or on your cell phone.

“As a patient, you know which clinicians know their ‘why.’ It’s not in the words they say; you can feel it in how they’re present with you. You feel safer in their hands,” says Cook-Cottone.

The burden of implementing self-care should not rest solely on employees, she adds.

Managers and supervisors can encourage its practice and create an environment that helps their staff cope with pressure by taking brief moments before meetings to acknowledge the stress employees are under, creating space in the schedule for staff to take care of themselves and expressing gratitude for their efforts.

A scale for self-care

A useful tool for health care professionals seeking to measure and improve their self-care is the mindful self-care scale, developed by Cook-Cottone in 2015.

Validated and standardized among community members and health care and hospice workers, the scale asks users 33 questions to grade their daily behaviors that shape mindful and supportive routines, environments and relationships.

The tool asks a variety of questions about the frequency of self-care activities, from how much water is consumed each day to how often the user engages in comforting self-talk. Once complete, users gain a sense of their strengths and weaknesses in the domains of self-care. With these benchmarks, they can create testable goals to improve and measure progress.

“There is no right score,” says Cook-Cottone. “Acceptable scores will vary from person to person. The tool is more about connecting with yourself to mitigate exposure to stress by promoting positive and healthy behaviors, remembering your ‘why’ and preventing negative coping strategies.”

The mindful self-care scale is available on Cook-Cottone’s website.

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