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Wellbeing for Service Providers during COVID-19: Managing our Own Emotional Needs While Helping Refugee Clients

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This post is one in a series on self-care and emotional wellbeing for refugee service providers during the COVID-19 crisis. For tips on how to help your clients cope, see: Helping Refugee Clients Cope During the COVID-19 Crisis and Helping Refugee Children and Parents Cope During the COVID-19 Crisis.

So Many Concerns… So Hard to Focus…

People in helping professions are being challenged in numerous personal and professional ways during the COVID-19 pandemic. Service providers are supporting clients who may be in crisis due to employment, childcare or healthcare needs. At the same time, we ourselves may be in crisis for similar reasons. The challenge of caring for and being concerned about family and friends, as well as clients, is leading to extreme stress in many helping professionals. 

As we struggle with these challenging circumstances, we may also find ourselves with a lot of unstructured time or interrupted routines. For those who experience symptoms related to anxiety, depression, or past trauma, downtime can make these symptoms worse. Without normal routines, anxious and depressive thoughts are harder to manage, and traumatic memories sometimes resurface. The challenges we are experiencing are very real.

Naming What We Feel

Many people are currently feeling increased worry and anxiety. These are natural reactions to change and uncertainty. Some service providers may have underlying health issues or have loved ones with health conditions, and may be experiencing greater fear. People with previous traumatic experiences, such as medical emergencies, forced family separation, or curfews, may be triggered by current events. Although our brains know that the COVID-19 situation is different, something feels familiar, which can trigger our internal alarms and make us feel like we are in danger.  HelpGuide has produced Coronavirus Anxiety: Coping with Stress, Fear, and Uncertainty, which offers some wonderful ideas for managing anxiety and fear. 

Many service providers may also be feeling lonely, sad, or depressed. David Kessler (grief expert and co-author of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss) recently identified another major feeling many of us are experiencing: grief. For anyone familiar with depression, now is the time to start thinking about behavioral activation. Psychology Today’s Behavioral Activation to Prevent Depression during COVID-19 provides a useful overview. If you are prone to depression or suicidal thoughts, please be in connection with your support group, therapist, or other care providers.

Listening to Those Feelings

Whatever emotions we may be experiencing, we should try to listen to them. What are they telling us? What is making us sad or worried (what specifically, not just COVID-19 in general)?

In some cases, we may be able to identify some steps we can take to feel better. For example, I might realize I’m feeling worried, and the thought scenarios that feed that worry are about not being well enough to help my child with their home schooling. In this case, the pandemic may be highlighting a desire to spend more time with my child, either in person (for those isolating together) or online. Or I might realize I’m feeling angry, and the thought scenarios that feed that anger are about the health of a friend or relative who I’ve lost contact with. In this case, the pandemic may be highlighting something else I need: to reconnect with that person, or to make amends, or to let go.

In other cases, there may be no clear steps we can take. In situations like these, we can explore what we already know helps us to cope. Is it exercise, walking, prayer, meditation? Talking to family and friends? Watching silly movies? Once I know what strategies help me to cope, I can then ask: am I using those strategies right now? If so, am I using them enough? If not, what can I do start using them?  Depending on what coping strategies work, many services and apps are currently offering free support that may be useful, such as the meditation apps Headspace and Calm.

A Few Steps We Can Take

While there is no single clear solution that makes sense for everyone, here are a few ideas to consider:

Try grounding techniques. Whatever feelings we experience are valid. But sometimes our brains run away with those feelings and produce thoughts to keep us feeling that way. One of the best ways to begin to feel better is to get out of our heads and back into the “here and now” with some grounding techniques.

Maintain routines, to the extent possible. The world outside is uncertain, but the way we plan our days may be within our control. I recommend not turning on the news first thing in the morning. Instead, try music, yoga, or silent meditation. As much as possible, it can be useful to eat, sleep, exercise, take breaks, etc. at regular times. We know that interruptions may come, kids may have temper tantrums, we might be assigned extra shifts at work, etc., but aiming for routine is a good starting point.

Stay connected to friends and families. Humans are social creatures, and this level of isolation will be hard on many of us. Connection might take place through video calls or simultaneous activities (such as watching a movie “together”). Mass Cultural Council’s Staying Connected in the Face of COVID-19 provides more suggestions.

Finally, watch your drug and alcohol intake. If you’re in recovery, remember that downtime is the hardest time. Many Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups are maintaining online meetings. Stay connected with people who can support your sobriety.

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