First responders, ER physicians and critical care personnel are charged with
rendering urgent aid to patients in need, oftentimes at the risk of putting their
own wellbeing in danger. Furthermore, emergency medicine practitioners face the
daunting task of making split-second, life-or-death decisions. All of these
circumstances contribute to a high degree of stress.
Stress is basically the body’s reaction to changes that require some type of
response. In small doses, stress can motivate and increase a person’s alertness. Too
much stress, on the other hand, can lead to a host of other mental, emotional and
physical issues, including headaches, fatigue, irritability and more.
This is why managing stress is such an important thing for emergency medicine
personnel to master. With the proper coping mechanisms, individuals who work in
high-intensity urgent care positions can keep their stress levels in check and care
for their patients more effectively.
The good news is, there are plenty of ways to deal with stress – before, during and
following an emergency situation. Let’s take a look at a few of those ways below.
Preventing Stress Before an Emergency
Being prepared in advance to deal with the impending stress that comes with an
emergency medical situation can put first responders and critical care practitioners
in a better position for success. Taking coursework such as an online CPR or Basic
Life Support (BLS) course, for example, can strengthen the skills and instill the
confidence necessary to deliver life-saving care in the event of a medical
In the case of a first responder, such as a fire fighter or EMT, who is typically
the first person to arrive on the scene of an emergency, gathering as much
information about the incident as possible in the moments leading up to arrival on
the scene can help to alleviate some of the stress. For instance, these details can
help determine the first responder’s role in the emergency as well as what to expect
so critical support can be delivered swiftly and confidently upon arrival.
Finally, emergencies can often cause delays and interfere with other work duties.
Keeping the supervisor abreast of the situation can help to set expectations and
relieve some of the stress the first responder may be experiencing.
Coping with Stress During an Emergency
Medical emergencies can be chaotic scenes. While stress is inevitable, certain
actions can be taken to reduce the levels all around. For instance, when EMTs,
nurses and doctors work together as teams, not only can they speed up and improve
response, but they can also shoulder the burden together, thereby limiting the risk
of secondary traumatic stress and potential burnout during the emergency.
Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional toll caused by another person’s trauma.
It can lead to a number of physical and emotional symptoms, similar to those caused
by stress. Burnout can occur as a result of extreme exhaustion and the feeling of
being overwhelmed by the circumstances happening around you. This can make it
difficult for practitioners to focus, which can place both the patient as well as
the physician in danger. Being able to recognize the signs of these conditions early
can prevent them from escalating.
An emergency medical professional experiencing the signs of secondary traumatic
stress or burnout should step away from the scene and take a break as soon as it’s
feasible. Separating oneself from the chaos of a critical care situation can help
with regaining focus before returning to the scene.
Using a buddy system can also help with stress management during an emergency
situation. For example, if two EMTs work closely together, they can each monitor the
other’s wellbeing and help to recognize and manage the signs of serious stress
throughout the emergency.
Dealing with Stress After an Emergency
Emergency medical personnel do everything within their power to achieve the best
possible outcome for patients in their care. When things don’t go as well as they’d
hoped, “what ifs” and “if onlys” can start to creep in after the fact. Second-
guessing after an emergency can contribute to higher stress levels outside of work.
Here are a few suggestions for how to manage stress following urgent care
- Keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings.
- Practice relaxation exercises, like deep breathing or meditation.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Get enough sleep (experts recommend at least 7 hours).
- Exercise regularly. Endorphins help to lower stress.
- Limit caffeine consumption.
- Avoid alcohol.
If you are really struggling with stress management and the tips above aren’t
helping you cope with stress, it may be a good idea to speak with your doctor. He or
she may recommend consulting a mental health professional who can provide additional
support and guidance.
Another, more formal tool for dealing with post-emergency stress is a practice known
as critical incident stress debriefing (CISD). This enables those impacted by an
emergency to share their experiences with a specialized counselor or disaster
recovery expert. CISDs typically take place within a few days of an emergency and
are usually sponsored by a government agency.
During a CISD meeting, participants are encouraged to share details about the
emergency through their own experience, as well as the thoughts, feelings, questions
and concerns they may have as a result of the situation. The specialist(s) running
the group will then offer insight, feedback, tools and other resources to help
participants cope with their symptoms.
Of course, there’s also friends and family who can offer support for those dealing
with post-emergency stress. If a critical caregiver is feeling overwhelmed, talking
through those feelings and emotions with a trusted confidante can do wonders. In
fact, a first responder who shares his or her feelings with a loved one is often
better equipped to deal with and move past stress than those who hold everything
The fact is, working in emergency medicine isn’t easy. Stress is a very real and
potentially serious side effect that could impact the wellbeing of the practitioner
as well as the outcome for the patient. Knowing how to deal with these feelings of
stress – before, during and following an emergency – can be beneficial for everyone
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