How to cope as a family when your family member is a first responder during COVID19

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As a daughter of an emergency room nurse, I write this with an empathic heart to all families and individuals dealing with the current COVID-19 epidemic. It’s especially stressful for those who have family members who are first responders; medical personnel, police officers, firefighters, rescuers, personnel, military officials, and other related professionals. Let’s also not forget individuals still working at food establishments, public works employees, and other essential personnel during this time. There’s uncertainty, very real risk, and a lack of clear information about how to emotionally respond.

It’s important to remember that amongst the wave of emotions, dealing with our feelings and stress in a healthy way is critical. Humans are social beings, meaning we rely on one another for connection. Our emotions (unconsciously or consciously) influence one another. If emotions aren’t handled properly, it can negatively impact both of you. Poor emotion regulation can result in many issues, specifically causing conflict or increasing anxiety. Stress has negative effects to the immune system, inadvertently increasing the risk and for the family member and first responder/essential personnel.

  • You may be experiencing pain, anger, frustration, anxiety, stress, and other emotions related your loved ones mandatory contact with other people during the pandemic. These feelings can have a wide range in intensity and frequency. Be aware that these feelings are a normal, protective response and your feelings are valid.
  • Establish precaution systems [expectations and rules for coming+going from work to minimize potential spreading] and communicate about how these will be carried out. By communicating ahead of time, it can prevent misunderstandings and ease worries to give more control to both parties through mutual understanding. As a result, a plan like this ensures the best are decreasing the risk of exposure. Example: taking shoes off in the driveway, communicating to everyone in the family not to touch the shoes.
  • Big and challenging conversations may need to be put on hold while you deal with the current circumstance. [If its not an urgent issue].
  • Remember that there are many different ways of coping in stressful situations and your way isn’t the only way. Being respectful (even if you differ dramatically) about how your loved decides to talk about it and deal with it will increase healthy communication in the family. An example, some people prefer to be more mindful and present to cope. Others feel better when they talk it out. Coping can look very different from person to person.
  • Having a mutual understanding that there should be no greetings for anyone in a physical way. Explain this ahead of time so that children and partners know that the distance is a safety precaution and for everyone’s safety. (For example, it may spare the confusing, potentially startling, or angry rejection a parent has when their young child is exciting and tries to run in for a hug at their arrival.)
  • Respect emotional boundaries. It’s tough to watch the ones we love take risks to their health and well-being. However, it’s important to take care of your emotional needs so that they do not negatively impact your family member. Some examples of this could be expressing excessive virus-related worry to the point of triggering our family member.
  • If possible, hold emotional space for one another to express these feelings and thoughts in a productive way. It’s difficult for both parties involved, and holding space for your essential personnel family member is important.
  • If there are elderly parents or other family members with health problems, try to remain flexible and be aware that the dynamics, roles, and expectations in the household may temporarily change to accommodate for everyone’s safety. Being mindful and communicating is so important.
  • According to the CDC, Responders experience stress during a crisis. When stress builds up it can cause burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Look out for signs demonstrated by your loved one to ensure they get the help they need if they do.
  • Burnout – feelings of intense exhaustion and being overwhelmed.
  • Secondary traumatic stress – stress reactions and symptoms resulting from experiencing another individual’s traumatic experiences, rather than from exposure directly to a traumatic event.

Strategies such as eating healthy foods, exercising, taking breaks, and using the buddy system can help prevent and reduce burnout and secondary traumatic stress.

  • Signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress
  • Excessively worry or fear about
  • something bad happening
  • Easily startled, or “on guard” all of the time
  • Physical signs of stress (e.g. racing heart)
  • Nightmares or recurrent thoughts about
  • the traumatic situation
  • The feeling that others’ trauma is yours
  • Signs Of Burnout:
  • Sadness, depression, or apathy
  • Easily frustrated
  • Blaming of others, irritability
  • Lacking feelings, indifferent
  • Isolation or disconnection from others
  • Poor self-care (hygiene)
  • Tired, exhausted or overwhelmed
  • Feeling like:
    • A failure
    • Nothing you can do will help
    • You are not doing your job well
    • You need alcohol/other drugs to cope

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