September 16, 2020

NAMI is partnering with #FirstRespondersFirst to raise awareness about the importance of mental health in frontline health care and public safety professionals. In today's blog, Elaine Lipworth discusses how prioritizing exercise, mindfulness and gratitude can help first responders take care of themselves.

Self-care is crucial for first responders on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Though it’s a challenge to prioritize your own well-being while you’re mobilizing to support so many in need, it has never been more important for first responders to find ways to address their own physical and mental health. As psychologist Sarah McEwen, Ph.D., Director of Research and Programming at Providence Saint John’s Pacific Brain Health Center in Southern California tells Thrive, “People working in hospitals, who are helping to manage the distress of patients, can become more susceptible to distress themselves.” That can sometimes lead to physiological responses such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and muscle tension, she says, adding that “being exposed to prolonged job stress can [also] make you more prone to depression and anxiety.”

While hospitals are working on protecting the physical health and safety of first responders, “the psychological risks and pressures they face are often overlooked, and difficult to identify,” McEwen says. To address these serious concerns, McEwen, together with psychiatrist Dr. Shanthi Gowrinathan, M.D., director of psycho-oncology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, has developed an “intervention” program called “Hero Breaks” for first responders at their hospital. Focused on short, simple movement and mindfulness and breathing techniques, the program is strongly recommended (though not mandated) by the hospital’s physician wellness committee.

Neuro-oncologist Dr. Santosh Kesari, M.D., Ph.D., at Providence Saint John’s, tells Thrive: “Everyone can benefit from these practices. Medicine is a calling, and the same is true for first responders at hospitals, who have a calling to help and protect patients, but they can’t fulfill that calling unless they stay healthy and take care of themselves.”

Here are four simple, stress-reducing steps for first responders from some of the experts behind “Hero Breaks.”

Make movement a part of your day

Scientific research suggests that psychological factors can contribute to musculoskeletal disorders and other physical conditions, says McEwen, explaining why movement is crucial. A Harvard University study found that people who exercise regularly have enhanced emotional resilience to prolonged exposure of stress. “Taking 10 minutes to stretch will help you feel invigorated, increase your flexibility and your range of motion,” says McEwen. It will also lower your chances of injuring a muscle, while reducing stress levels and boosting your mental performance throughout the day, she says. Ideally, McEwen recommends doing these 10 dynamic stretches (or any of your choice) before the start of a shift and/or during a break.

Do breathing exercises

McEwen recommends a technique called Box Breathing, used for stress management and to help people relax. Practiced by Navy Seals, says McEwen, it’s easy and can be done anywhere, even in a noisy environment like a hospital.

  • Step One: Breathe in through the nose for a count of four.
  • Step Two: Hold your breath for a count of four.
  • Step Three: Breath out for a count of four.
  • Step Four: Hold breath for a count of four.
  • Repeat.

Try experimenting with other simple breathing techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, and guided imagery, which entails visualizing yourself in a calm and relaxing environment, to see which ones work best for you.

Practice mindfulness techniques

Science shows that mindfulness and meditation can increase aspects of brain function and lower stress. If you don’t have a regular practice, try an app with short guided meditations — for example, Headspace — to help you stay calm and centered.

Make a gratitude wall

McEwen and Gowrinathan suggest writing short gratitude notes to colleagues and putting them on a central “Gratitude Wall.”

“In times of crisis, gratitude is particularly important to help a workplace prepare for stresses,” says McEwen, who adds that the practice helps individuals to build up a “psychological immune system.” There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress.

In the words of Robert Emmons, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and author of books on the topic including Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, gratitude matters most when we are under crisis conditions: “In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope,” writes Emmons.

Also, says McEwen, although it’s up to you to take control of your own well-being during this crisis, “first responders need support from their supervisors and leaders to cultivate a workplace where they are allowed and incentivized to take these important ‘Hero Breaks.’” She adds that it’s important, however, not to give yourself additional stress about self-care. Just do the best you can by taking Microsteps; you can find a collection of these helpful Microsteps by visiting

Click here for information about how Thrive Global is supporting our healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, and find out how you can support the cause by donating to #FirstRespondersFirst.

Elaine Lipworth, Content Writer at Thrive Global

Elaine Lipworth is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster who has reported for a variety of BBC shows and other networks. She has written about film, lifestyle, psychology and health for newspapers and magazines around the globe. Publications she’s contributed to range from The Guardian, The Times and You Magazine, to The Four Seasons Hotel Magazine, Marie Claire, Harpers Bazaar, Women’s Weekly and Sunday Life (Australia). She has also written regularly for film companies including Fox, Disney and Lionsgate. Recently, Elaine taught journalism as an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. Born and raised in the UK, Elaine is married with two daughters and lives in Los Angeles.

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