Connection as a Stress-Resilience Tool for Essential Workers

April 20, 2020

Unfortunately, “stay home” doesn’t work for those on the front lines—healthcare providers, police officers, firefighters, first responders, grocery store and transit workers, and others deemed “essential” to the community. Those required to serve in this time are in deep need of ways to cope with the negative effects of increased stress, not just for the sake of being calmer ourselves and for the benefit of those we serve, but also because increased stress triggers a spike in cortisol, a hormone that decreases immunity. And increased levels of unregulated stress also negatively impact our ability to make appropriate and informed decisions, in our work and in our daily lives, which is key to serving those affected with and by coronavirus.

Deepening our connection with people, our work, ourselves, and the things that matter most to us is one of the most effective tools we have for dealing with stress on a long-term basis—and as a side benefit, it boosts our health.

Connection is about relationships—maintaining quality interactions with those we care about, those we work with, and our community. And it’s about recognizing and keeping in touch with that which gives meaning and purpose to our lives at any given time: our family, beliefs, creativity, career, causes. What does that have to do with everyday stress, and particularly the increased stress brought on by the combined—and seemingly conflicting—needs for dealing with the public and attempting as much self-distancing and social isolation as possible? A lot.

Lack of connection is one of the most significant factors in decreasing or hampering our ability to deal with stress and our ability to be stress resilient—to bounce back in times of increased challenges. Moreover, absence of social connection has been shown to be a greater detriment to health than high blood pressure. In one study, lack of strong relationships was found to increase the risk of premature death from all causes by 50 percent—roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity. High levels of stress over time can adversely affect coronary arteries, gut function, insulin regulation, and the immune system. Bolstering social connection, however, triggers the release of stress-reducing hormones

Thankfully, there are many simple things we can do to increase connection and, in the process, improve our ability to deal with stress. 

Connect to others

Even in this time of isolation, contact and connection with others can be maintained via phone, Zoom, texting audio and video to loved ones, or even standing 10 feet apart and talking. Pet your dog or cat. Wish others well. Say thank you. What really matters is your felt experience of being understood and connected to others. Quality of connections is more important than quantity: As much as possible, connect with supportive and positive people, rather than those who feed on negativity.    

Connect to individual interactions

When you do interact, listen intently without judging what the other person says or focusing on how you might want to respond. Say nothing. Just listen. Both the speaker and listener benefit: When we feel listened to, we feel valued, and our connection to the listener is enhanced. When we listen intently, the listening experience becomes a mindfulness practice—which, in and of itself, is a tool for reducing the negative effects of stress. Focused or mindful listening also enables us to react from a more informed place, rather than impulsively. Imagine how this can benefit work in law enforcement or as a first responder: For example, listening mindfully can help an EMT retain and pass on at hospital intake a seemingly insignificant symptom related by a patient that might be important in making a critical early diagnosis. Listening also helps the patient feel that the first responder cares and is fully present, helping them to be more relaxed in transit.

Connect with your purpose

Thinking about what has meaning and purpose in your work and why you do it is vital in maintaining a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, avoiding burnout, and feeling self-appreciation related to your work. Identify what it is that drew you to the work you do, and what you find satisfying and rewarding about it. It might be saving lives, alleviating suffering and fear, reducing crime, protecting society, or working to save your community. Remind yourself of this often. 

Connect to creativity

Spend time listening to or playing music, making art or looking at it online, writing, reading, or whatever else engages you. You don’t have to be “good” at a creative pursuit—just do it. Sing along to Spotify. Doodle or color with your kid’s crayons. Write down your thoughts (remember, poetry doesn’t have to rhyme) or write a song. It’s not about creating a masterpiece; it’s about discovering and spending time with activities that bring you pleasure. The meaning and benefit lies in the creative process or journey, not the outcome.

Connect with what matters

You can increase your connection to what is meaningful to you by taking some time to write about the things that are important to you. The actual act of writing reinforces the strength of your connections (and also boosts immunity). This can be just for you, and you can read it over from time to time. Write about whatever has meaning to you—family, beliefs, career, anything. And you can write about it in any way you like—as an essay, a series of brief phrases or thoughts, or simply a stream-of-consciousness list of whatever comes to you. You might try focusing on one or two of your character traits or strengths that are particularly important to you, and write about those; consider sharing that exercise with a friend and discussing with each other what you have written. This can go a long way in boosting your connection with self and your feeling of worth.

For sustained benefit, practice these connection tools or experiences regularly; try one every day or so, even if it’s for only a few minutes at a time. 

Carl Rubino, is a seasoned criminal prosecutor and a certified Kripalu yoga teacher with years of experience bringing the tools of mindful stress management to community safety and law enforcement professionals as well as to adjudicated juveniles.

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