By Chelsea Backler, MSN, APRN, AGCNS-BC, AOCNS®, and Erin Dickman, MS, RN, OCN®

Last reviewed: August 28, 2020

The COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic is turning the world, inside and outside of the hospital, upside down. Not only are oncology nurses seeing high demands at work, but changes and restrictions are being instated at home as well.

As nurses, we pride ourselves on being resilient and able to take on anything that comes our way, but this is something that none of us has ever experienced, and the unknown is stressful. Because we don’t know how long the pandemic will affect our communities and patients, we must stay proactive in identifying if our stress levels are rising and finding ways to manage it before it becomes too much.

During incidents such as disasters or infectious outbreaks, healthcare workers can experience a buildup of stress that can lead to burnout or secondary traumatic stress (STS) reactions. According to results of a research review published in the Journal of Trauma Nursing, STS is “triggered from exposure to persons who have experienced trauma and from giving care to such persons.” But recognizing signs of stress and using coping techniques can help.

Signs of secondary traumatic stress can manifest as:

  • Psychological and emotional (e.g., irritability, sadness, depression, mood swings, guilt, fear, anxiety)
  • Physical (e.g., change in appetite, fatigue)
  • Cognitive (e.g., memory problems, difficulty making decisions, limited concentration)
  • Behavioral (e.g., change in activity, inability to rest, social withdrawal, increased use of alcohol or tobacco)

To cope with stress, try implementing the following suggestions:

  • Take care of your physical and mental health with healthy eating, rest, exercise, relaxation, and meditation.
  • Talk with someone about your feelings, and use a buddy system to support your fellow nurses.
  • Maintain as much normalcy and routine at home as you can.
  • Know that it is normal to be affected emotionally by large-scale disasters or outbreaks.
  • Don’t get frustrated if you can’t help directly in areas with high numbers of infected patients.
  • If the news, social media, or other information outlets are overwhelming, step away and disconnect.

Institutions or nursing units can:

  • Discuss the signs and symptoms of secondary traumatic stress; early recognition and intervention are important.
  • Conduct regular debriefing and reflection as a unit or department.
  • Reinforce that having mental and physical reactions during and after a disaster situation are normal, but if they don’t go away or you’re experiencing a number of intense symptoms simultaneously, additional intervention is likely needed.

These times can be emotionally taxing, but ONS is your resource for professional support and guidance. Remember: you are not alone; we are all in this together. Check out some of ONS’s self-care podcasts and articles, and learn more about COVID-19 on the ONS resource page. Finally, ask questions and discuss solutions with other nurses on the ONS COVID-19 Community so we can all figure this out together.