It doesn't take survey results to understand health care workers are in stressful occupations and need ways to relieve stress. Understanding stress and knowing how to get relief is the difficult part. Elizabeth Stanley knows stress. She was on active duty with the U.S. Army, earned a B.A. from Yale, an MBA from MIT, and a Ph.D. in government from Harvard. Stanley experienced chronic stress and traumatic events during childhood and while on active duty; she was later diagnosed with PTSD.
For years, Stanley suppressed stress, but its effects manifested as other health problems, including temporary blindness. After learning about the science of stress and finding ways to cope, Stanley created Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT) to improve performance and enhance resilience for people who work in an extreme stress environment. Stanley is associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University.
In her keynote address at the 2020 Annual Leadership Conference, Stanley explained how our actions affect how the mind and body processes stress. The purpose of stress is to mobilize the body’s energy to cope with the challenge and recover, but chronic stress doesn’t allow us to recover. Over time, Stanley says, that lack of recovery time is what begins to undermine our resilience.
“As leaders, you send really important ripples into the social environment around you,” she says. “People who prioritize their self-care are better leaders. It’s not selfish to invest time. You will have more capacity to handle challenges and set conditions for those who work in your organization. You have a tremendous effect on the collective reliance of the organization.”
Children’s Hospitals Today previously talked with Stanley about her mindfulness-base training, and here’s what she shared.
Why is it important to address stress?
High-stress professionals can have cultural habits that exacerbate stress and trauma. People get used to powering through—compartmentalizing emotions so they can function. My system went for one of the weakest links, my optic nerve, and I developed vision problems so severe I couldn't read or drive. That was my frying pan upside the head that it was time to learn a new way of being.
Why are health care workers good candidates for mindfulness-based training?
Someone may function well for years, but without recovery they're undermining resilience. High achievers tend to use the powering through strategy. That can be good in the immediate term, but when it becomes a constant coping mechanism, it can override our system's ability to recover and lead to longer term challenges for health and well-being.
What are some common stress contributors?
Chronic sleep deprivation among health care providers has been linked with medical errors. It also negatively affects executive functioning and ability to regulate emotions. Providers may rely on caffeine, tobacco or unhealthy food choices to keep going—but these can lead to chronic inflammation, a root cause of many physical and neurodegenerative diseases.
How does the work environment affect stress?
There's a range of research about open work spaces and the connection to absenteeism and lower job satisfaction. Autonomy also comes into play. Look at the electronic health record; if providers feel they have no choice about using it, they may feel helpless, powerless and lacking control. The sense of lack of control moves stress into the realm of traumatic stress.
The Sounds True Foundation has dedicated funds to offer the course for free to public servants including doctors, nurses and medical assistants. Go to Stanley’s website for more information.