Rachel Cherrick, MSW, LCSW
It is normal to experience a certain level of stress given the difficult interactions and situations we find ourselves in as health care workers. However, if the stress begins to interfere with our ability to complete necessary tasks, this is a sign of possible emotional distress. People in emotional distress present differently, but some common signs to recognize in others are: shortness of breath, clenched jaw, appearing overwhelmed or irritable, tearfulness, difficulty concentrating or keeping track of things, or any other significant change to demeanor.
When identifying a team member in distress, remind yourself that just by being present and listening, whether it’s in the same room or even on the phone, you are offering more support to your team member than you may realize. Your willingness to sit with someone lets that person know you are holding space for them without judgement.
- Remind your colleague to slow down their breathing by modeling 4-2-6 deep breathing.
- Place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Take a deep, slow breath in through your nose, noticing your stomach expanding while keeping your chest as still as possible. Silently count from 1 to 4 as you inhale.
- Hold your breath and silently and slowly count to 2.
- Breathe out completely through your nose or mouth while silently counting from 1 to 8. Try to get all the air out of your lungs by the time you count to 8.
- Repeat this exercise as many times as your colleague needs.
- Encourage them to use their five senses to return to the present moment, by asking them to tell you five things they see, four things they feel, three things they hear, two things they smell, one thing they can taste.
- Be aware of your non-verbal communication and body language by making appropriate eye contact and maintaining an open posture. Show your interest by nodding your head and using facial expressions that display concern.
- Acknowledge their feelings by indicating that you can see their reactions (i.e. “I can see that really upset you” or “I can’t imagine what that was like for you”).
- Give them permission to have whatever feeling they are experiencing, whether it’s panic, anger, ambivalence, or something else (i.e. “Of course, you’re feeling that way after going through that”).
- Validate their experience (i.e. “I know you did the best you could despite the stress of the situation, and I’m happy you’re here right now”).
- Project calmness through your voice. Speak slowly and quietly so as not to further overwhelm them. It’s okay to repeat yourself, keeping in mind that shock and intense emotion can prevent people from absorbing information.
- Remind them that any intense feelings or physical sensations will pass and that it’s normal for our minds and bodies to respond in unexpected ways.
Remember, you are not alone in supporting team members who are in emotional distress. The trained mental health professionals with BJC EAP are available to support you and your colleagues. If your team member is struggling to regulate their emotions using these strategies, you can recommend calling BJC EAP together at 314-747-7490 or 888-505-6444. Ask to speak to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) consultant. Office, telephone, and virtual appointments are available.