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Pandemic Support for the Nursing Spirit

Three actions for Covid-traumatic stress growth with peer support, according to Dr. Phyllis.

Publish Date: January 27, 2021

When perioperative nurses working at a children’s hospital in New York City were needed last spring to care for Covid patients, they immediately deployed to help where needed.

Dr. Phyllis Quinlan
PhD, RN, NPD-BC, and Professional Certified Coach
MFW Consultants

As the pandemic continues, this help has included holding the hand of a dying patient and even learning how to wrap a body after death—new skills that continue to test the heart of many nurse colleagues, shares Dr. Phyllis Quinlan, PhD, RN, NPD-BC, a nursing coach, podcaster, and perioperative nursing educator in New York City, known to all as Dr. Phyllis.

First Aid for Covid-Traumatic Stress

Putting her coaching and wellness knowledge into high-gear, Dr. Phyllis created a Pandemic Emotional First Aid peer support program via Zoom to help these nurses process their experiences and grow from them.

“This began as a way to help nurses manage their stress from being on the frontline to care for Covid patients, but I quickly found that they didn’t want to learn how to manage stress, they just needed someone to listen and say, ‘this was bloody awful, but look at you, you are a hero to your children, to your patients, to the world’ in order to help them re-tap their resilience,” she explains.

To nurses on the Covid front line, Dr. Phyllis asks them to be brave enough to seek support. To their colleagues, she asks that they be that sounding board and support to get nurses through these incredibly challenging times to ensure a strong nursing community after the pandemic.

“This is the time to lean in and say, ‘I’ve never run from a damn thing in my life and I’m not running from this, let’s figure out how to get through it’,” she says.

Here are three ways Dr. Phyllis suggests a nurse can tackle Covid-traumatic stress and grow from it.

  1. Muster Your Strength
    “This is not the time for inner peace, you are chasing smoke if you are trying to be peaceful through this pandemic,” Dr. Phyllis stresses. “You can’t be resilient if you deny reality.”

    The goal with resilience is to learn from every challenge with one more life skill you can apply to the next challenge, she says. This creates inner fortitude and life skills so when the next challenge comes, you meet it head-on. You don’t run or hide or have the wind knocked out of you, you simply say ok because you have been learning the tools to face this new challenge, she says.

    This doesn’t mean nurses aren’t exhausted with the constant traumas we are all facing through this pandemic, she adds. “We are exhausted, but we acknowledge that exhaustion, we don’t try to cover it up.”

    To tap your resilience, Dr. Phyllis suggests thinking about what you need to be strong for—for your patients, for your family, and for your life’s mission to be a nurse. “Have a firm grip on what is real in order to muster the strength to create a plan for circumstances in front of you.”
  1. Use the Nursing Process to Process
    Once you can harness your strength, Dr. Phyllis recommends using your nursing skills to move forward by applying the nursing process to whatever challenge you face: assess the challenge, make a plan, implement the plan, and assess your next steps.

    “With Covid, what we know is a moving target—our factual reality can change between the morning and afternoon in a single shift. This is why the nursing process can work well in this pandemic, because it requires constant assessment and reassessment in an ongoing nature.” 

    No matter where your Covid trench is, on the frontline, cross-training staff for deployment, or leading at an administrative level, the nursing process applies in any situation, she stresses.

  2. Avoid Emotional Isolation
    “You cannot do a pandemic in isolation,” Dr. Phyllis says. “The element that will give you the ability to decompress and reassure yourself that there will be an endpoint is the ability to keep your relationships.”

    With social distancing to prevent spreading Covid, isolation is a very real concern. Dr. Phyllis breaks down Covid isolation into two different types: isolation for infection prevention versus self-imposed isolation.

    Self-imposed isolation is a signal that someone is losing their ability to face life heart-open—heart open is hard because you feel the good and the bad with no filter—but if you are losing your ability to face Covid heart-open, you need intervention such as peer support, and this is what Dr. Phyllis is seeing in New York. She suspects this is also the case in other Covid hot spots across the country.

    Peer support can be a formal, organized activity or it can be the action of a nurse seeing a fellow colleague who needs a break.

    “It’s not about having an answer, it’s about opening your heart and listening with two ears to help someone unwind knots developing,” she says, adding that it’s important to remember the emotional needs of those who are fighting the effects of Covid in their daily lives.

    For those nurses experiencing isolation as a result of following social distancing guidelines, she says to get creative. “Have a Zoom girls’ night out. Ask your friends to send pictures of their dog, whatever you need to feel connected because now is the time to find a way to do little things that make a big difference for your emotional health.”

    She is hearing about more nursing groups creating circles of connection to keep deployed nurses connected to the team. “We have to find ways to use technology to our advantage, it doesn’t mean forever, it’s just for now until we can be together again.”