The life of healthcare professionals has never been easy. Now, though, it’s hard in a way that would have been unimaginable even just last year. Between endless work shifts, separation from loved ones, the ever-present fear of infection, and the need to comfort isolated COVID-19 patients, the pressure on physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers who support them is unbearable. So how do we keep going?

Rich Bluni, RN, says the answer is to remember that, somewhere under the fear and exhaustion, we’re all driven by mission. And we owe it to ourselves, our coworkers, and our patients to stay connected to our sense of purpose, our meaning, our calling … our “why.”

“That doesn’t ‘just happen’ even in good times; it’s a choice we must make every day,” says Bluni, who has more than 25 years of nursing experience in the ER, trauma, and ICU, and is the author of the books Inspired Nurse and Inspired Nurse Too. “If we don’t, we will quickly get overwhelmed by pain, fear, and negativity.”

Bluni offers seven tips to any healthcare workers who are struggling to maintain their emotional health during the COVID-19 pandemic:

• Take 10 minutes to relive a moment when you made a real difference. “At any moment when you’re feeling crushed and exhausted, close your eyes and be right back there when you did something incredible,” he suggests. “Relive your greatest moment. Your mind doesn’t know the difference between it really happening and the memory.”

• Write down your gratitude. Even in a pandemic, there are things to be grateful for. Maybe a patient you thought was going to die actually recovered. Maybe a coworker paid for your lunch. Maybe the cafeteria had that carrot cake you love. Charting moments of gratitude (however big or small) helps you remember why you chose this deeply meaningful line of work. “Write down three things about your work that you are thankful for,” says Bluni. “Each day, look it over and add to your list.”
• Share your gratitude with others. Chances are, some of the “things” on your gratitude list involve other people in your life. Apart from your family and friends, it may be the coworker who always jumps in to help or the food service employee who always remembers your lunch order and greets you with a smile. Let them know. “Extend your gratitude to someone every day,” advises Bluni. “Give them a thank-you note, or tell them face-to-face—even if it has to be from 6 feet away while wearing PPE. Not only will you feel better, you’ll help others feel better at a time when most likely they really need it.”

• Make a self-care plan. “Get out a journal and write the following labels on five separate pages: Mind, Body, Spirit, Love, and Prosperity,” suggests Bluni. “Under each title, come up with just two things that you can do every day that would impact that part of your being. In the ‘Body’ category, you may write, ‘walk a mile,’ ‘eat more green veggies,’ and ‘drink eight glasses of water.’ It may feel strange to focus on improving your life when the world seems to be falling apart, but now is when we need to be at our best.”

• Get intentional about who you spend time with. Who do you chat with on breaks during your shift? Who do you vent to when times are tough? Often, we don’t make these decisions consciously. The problem is, we might be hanging out with psychic vampires who drain our energy and break us down with their negativity. “Your two most valuable resources are your love and your time,” Bluni says. “So if you’re spending them on people who spread fear, or hold grudges, or don’t act in ways that are kind and compassionate, I encourage you to become more intentional about your relationships. The company you keep has a big impact on your attitude and well-being.”

• Stop blaming yourself for others’ difficult behavior. Everyone has plenty of experience dealing with the occasional person who is grouchy, demanding, or even downright mean. Too often we may take their difficult behavior personally. “Realize that 99% of the time, difficult people aren’t reacting to you but to their circumstances,” Bluni reminds. Everyone in the hospital is experiencing usual stresses these days, including the patients, the caregivers, and the staff. Understand where the bad behavior might be coming from, and let it slide.

• Realize that you don’t rent your life. You own it. Do you let bad situations and other people’s negativity dictate how you feel about your work life? If you do, then you’re renting, says Bluni. “You can’t wait around for someone to rescue you or to fix how you feel,” he asserts. “Start by practicing gratitude and improving yourself. Connect with other people every chance you get. Opportunities to do so exist around each corner in healthcare. Look for inspiration today. Look for ways to give. Own your life—especially right now. It’s when times are toughest that we learn the most valuable lessons and experience the biggest leaps in our personal growth.”