Deborah Kirkpatrick comforts patients, family members and staff as part of her role as a chaplain at the Misericordia Community Hospital.
She is with people on their worst days, supporting them through their grief as they face life changes and loss and helping them with life stresses. And these days, much of that stress revolves around COVID-19.
“There are so many little things that people have to face. There’s a lot we know to do. But there are a lot of basic unknowns,” she says.
“For example, you walk towards someone, and you’re wondering if they’re a carrier. That unknown affects all of us.”
And, like many, this spiritual care provider has the added stress of concern for a loved one who’s at high risk for COVID-19. While she spends her time in Edmonton helping others, Deborah worries about the health of her 87-year-old mother, Sonja, who lives in a Calgary long-term care facility.
“It is stressful,” she says.
And she sees that worry all around her. Left unchecked, that stress can cause us problems.
A high level of worry can flood our nervous system, leaving us anxious, overwhelmed and unable to think as clearly as we may need to. Those feelings can become our focus, leaving us unable to relax or without room for happy moments, which can have a negative impact on our mental health. We need to be able to acknowledge the stress of real life and to use tools such as meditation to help us achieve an emotionally calmer state, Deborah says.
“When we’re so stressed, we can’t experience anything that is joyful, nourishing or supportive for our system, and our system really needs to have that resourcing so we can manage the things we need to do,” she says.
And not only are we worried about what’s happening around us, but also we are flooded with negative messages and fears about the possibility of a bleak future once the pandemic ends.
An overloaded system means we may not be able to deal with what’s happening, leaving us unable to meet life challenges.
You can benefit from even a one-minute meditation as Deborah demonstrates.
“We have only so much capacity to manage all of these things,” explains Deborah. “When our plate gets full or the cup gets full, we can’t put in any more, and so we have to find ways to empty that so we have room for what’s coming next.”
“It’s a dance that doesn’t stop.”
Being present through the practice of meditation or other methods helps us slow down and recharge.
The first step is to listen to your body and be aware of its signals.
“All of a sudden, you notice that you’ve got a tight gut or you’re clenching your jaw, and those are all signs that are saying, ‘Hmm, I need to give my system a little bit of a break so that I can keep going.’ It’s a back and forth dance.”
There are numerous ways you can nurture yourself to refill your cup. What’s key is to find things that allow you to relax and keep you in the present moment. And if you are aware you are stressed or filled with worry, it’s important that you respond with compassion and kindness to yourself.
Deborah shares a number of options to help us cope with the added stress in our lives.
Breathing — If you are busy, such as being on the front lines in health care, you may not be able to pause even for a minute. “Acknowledge that you can’t stop. Show self-compassion. You might say to yourself, ‘This is a difficult time. This is a hard time. Just keep breathing.’ That’s nurturing yourself.”
If the busy period continues, Deborah says, it may be possible to find even a few seconds when you can stop, notice your feet solid on the ground and take three slow, deep breaths, making sure to exhale slowly each time as well. “It helps your body recalibrate and find that relaxation response.”
Meditation — Even if you only have a minute, you can have a temporary pause in your day until you have more time to do a proper check-in with yourself. Meditation offers a way to check in to see what’s happening and an opportunity for your body to reset itself.
Short recharge snippets, such as three deep breaths or a one-minute meditation, are not enough to fully recharge, says Deborah. We need to make sure we’re doing more fulsome self-care when we can work in the time, such as after work or before we go to bed.
“The quick stuff is to settle the body that’s in high alert towards a more relaxed state or to get it more stable. It’s not the deeper work.”
Prayer — Religion provides comfort to many, and a prayer can be short or long, which makes it accessible if you just have a moment in the midst of a stressful time.
Looking at beauty — This might be a family photo, a piece of art or something that you see as beautiful. It is different for each person.
Listening to music — The sound of music is uplifting to many. Choose songs or sounds that are nurturing and fill you with joy. This can help you reset and feel better.
Enjoying nature — If you can’t go for a walk in the woods and you don’t have a natural setting visible from a window, then go online and find nature scenes or videos. There are many online videos that feature sounds and visuals — such as the roar of the ocean or birds singing in the woods — that make you feel as if you’re watching the real thing.
Creative expression — People often find painting, writing or drawing relaxing. You don’t need to create works of art to experience the benefits of creative expressions.