During times of hardship, we all benefit from some emotional support. It can help us from feeling completely alone or overwhelmed by what’s going on in our lives. This is even more true when dealing with not just hardship, but a large-scale crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Often, people in helping professions struggle with asking for help for themselves. If you’re used to being the one who helps others, it can feel really vulnerable to admit that this time, you need support.
In Mental Health America’s recent survey of healthcare workers, we asked if respondents felt like they had adequate emotional support. Thirty-nine percent (the largest group of respondents to this question) said they didn’t and 26% weren’t sure. This was even more pronounced among younger healthcare workers, with seventy-two percent of respondents ages 18-34 saying they did not or weren’t sure if they had enough emotional support. If you fit into one of those groups, it’s important to boost your support system so that you feel more equipped to handle the challenges you’re facing.
Why do I need emotional support?
As a frontline worker during COVID-19, you’re at high risk for facing psychological distress[i]. Dealing with some level of trauma and grief has always been part of the job, but due to the pandemic, the high level of distress you’re feeling likely hasn’t let up for months and may peak again as our country goes through a second wave.
Healthcare professionals often must find a middle ground between empathy and clinical detachment to be effective providers; increasing emotional support has been found to rebalance those contrasting behaviors.[ii]. Having a strong social network of family, friends, and other people who care about you also improves your ability to cope with stressors on your own by giving you peace of mind in knowing that there are people to help if you need it. We aren’t capable of processing everything that happens to us alone – having a support system is a crucial aspect of general wellbeing.
I don’t have anyone to turn to.
Feeling like there’s no one you can be open with is fairly common. But often, there are people in your circle who can lend you some support. Just because you haven’t opened up to someone in the past doesn’t mean that they aren’t willing to support you – but you have to be willing to be a bit more vulnerable than you’re used to.
The majority of healthcare workers who participated in MHA’s survey received emotional support from family (57%) and friends (53%). But many also found same-level coworkers to be a source of support (38%). People find comfort in shared experiences. Connecting with others who are going through the same thing you are right now can help reduce how overwhelming and lonely it feels.
Other survey respondents noted pets, neighbors, and online groups as providers of emotional support. Don’t assume that the people closest to you will be the best supporters. Someone can be an incredible friend but not know how to effectively support you right now. And that’s okay. Reach out to some of your looser connections or seek out new people to add to your support system through an online support group.
Your support system doesn’t have to be large – the quality of your connections is far more important than the quantity. Having just one or two people who you can open up to, trust to keep your confidence, and know won’t judge you goes a long way. More often than not, it’s shame and embarrassment that holds people back from seeking help. If there isn’t anyone you feel safe being vulnerable with, consider finding a mental health professional to hold that space for you.
I don’t know how to ask for support.
Initiating a conversation about how you’re struggling is never easy. It’s normal to worry about coming off as ‘needy’ or ‘weak’, but everyone needs some extra support from time to time. Most people are happy to help out if approached with a genuine request for support. You may find it easier to ask for something specific: “Could you take care of dinner tonight so I don’t have to think about cooking when I get home?” or “Are you free to video chat sometime soon? I really need to vent.”
The people around you may not have any idea of what you’re truly going through. Share what’s going on with the people in your life. Tell your coworkers about that stressor in your personal life and tell your partner about how overwhelming work has been.
You might assume that someone you spend a lot of time with must know how you’re really feeling, but they often don’t. Just starting that conversation can clue them into what kind of support you need.
An especially simple way to seek support is by asking someone else how they’re doing (although avoid this if you aren’t in the headspace to support them as well). They may answer with a simple “good, you?” – this is often our default response, whether it’s true or not. You don’t have to dive into everything at once, but try responding with a bit more honesty – something like “eh, I’ve actually been having a hard time lately” opens the door for the conversation to turn into something more supportive than just superficial. And try to be honest when others ask how you’re doing; initiating vulnerability often leads to the same from others.
I’m still not okay.
If talking things through with the people in your life doesn’t help, you may be struggling with a mental health condition. Taking an online screen at mhascreening.org is one of the quickest ways to determine if you are experiencing symptoms of something like depression or anxiety. You may want to seek out a therapist to help you process your emotions and learn new coping strategies. There are also healthcare worker-specific hotlines you can utilize for mental health help, like the Physician Support Line (1-888-409-0141) or Magellan Health’s 24-hour crisis line (1-800-327-7451).
Remember that emotional support looks different to everyone – maybe you want help problem solving, or maybe you just want to vent. You might want to talk with someone who understands first-hand, or you might want an objective third-party. Whatever way you feel most supported is valid, and it’s important for you to receive that support.
[i] The Schwartz Center. (2020). Supporting Healthcare Professionals During Unprecedented Times. https://www.theschwartzcenter.org/covid-19/
[ii] Austen, L. (2016, July). Increasing emotional support for healthcare workers can rebalance clinical detachment and empathy. British Journal of General Practice, 66(648), 376-377. doi: 10.3399/bjgp16X685957