While facing stressful situations is not unusual for the fire and rescue service, trying to work around the challenges presented by coronavirus is unprecedented, bringing with it unprecedented levels of stress.

But how do we manage stress and not let it get the better of us, especially for those key workers still out on the front line and their families at home worrying about them?

Our Lead Practitioner, Jane Rosso, shares some advice for key workers and their families about coping with stress during this global pandemic.

Are you stressed?

First of all, if you are feeling stressed, know that this is a perfectly normal reaction to something we have never experienced and probably never will experience again in our lifetimes.

And some stress can be good for us; it can protect us from threats, help us escape from danger and enhance our performance by temporarily changing our physiology.

While these physiological changes are excellent in the short term, if we feel continually stressed it can upset our health and wellbeing, creating pressure on our minds, bodies and relationships that previously weren’t there.

Stress manifests differently in all of us. Our perception of stressful events is unique to us as individuals, so our reactions can be varied. Common physical symptoms include headaches or dizziness, muscle tension, stomach problems, chest pain or increased heartbeat and sexual problems. While mental symptoms can include a difficulty concentrating, struggling to make decisions, feeling overwhelmed, worrying, or being forgetful. It can also affect our behaviour, making us snappy or irritable, unable to sleep, overeat (remember stressed is desserts spelt backwards) avoiding places or people, or drinking or smoking more.

The NHS has a fantastic mood self-assessment online, which may help you understand how you or a member of your household has been feeling recently.

Stress in the fire service during coronavirus

We are living in extraordinary times and – like the rest of our emergency services colleagues – the fire community is adapting every day to the constantly-changing situation. Job roles are changing to support the NHS, routines are different, shift patterns are affected, schools are closed so parents are trying to become teacher and parent and families are living in close quarters on top of each other or completely separated to protect the vulnerable. The unknown phenomenon of COVID-19 and fear of infection have created a primeval drive to want to keep loved ones safe. And on top of all that, our normal ways of unwinding and coping with stressful events have been disrupted. So if you’re feeling stressed, it’s no wonder!

Stress is unavoidable and affects all of us in different ways at different times. It is a reaction to something external to us, so although we cannot stop things happening, we can change how we react to them.

What can we do about stress?

The good news is that we can take proactive steps to change how we react to things beyond our control, reducing our stress levels and regaining balance. Here are a few tips to help.

Accept the unchangeables: Social distancing and isolation have disrupted our daily lives, but we know staying home where possible is necessary to protect the NHS and save lives. We cannot change the unpredictability of the virus, nor are we sat in Parliament trying to influence Government Policy, so accept the world is a different place to how it was a few weeks ago. Accept what you cannot change and try to look forward.

Control the controllables: Focus your efforts into areas you can influence by looking at what you can do instead of what you can’t. You can’t control the virus, but you can take steps to prevent the spread of infection. You can be empathetic and considerate to people. You can choose to maintain a routine for the benefit of your physical and mental health.

Nourish your relationships: We have been given the gift of time, so spend it on building and improving relationships with friends, families and loved ones. Use video apps to spend time together and be creative in the activities you can do together. Maybe have a games evening or share Sunday lunches together in the virtual world.

Talk to your children: Stress isn’t exclusive to adults and many children will be feeling stressed or upset about not seeing their friends, finishing their school years, or worrying about family members who are still out working on the front line. The Government has produced some guidance for parents and carers on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people during the outbreak. You can find it here.

Believe in yourself: Stress affects our self-esteem and likes to tell us we aren’t good enough. But this isn’t true, you are good enough! Focus on your strengths and skills. Ask yourself what you’re good at, we bet it’s longer than you think. Consider how you could use some of the special things that make you you to adapt to this unusual world. Brush the dust off old parts of yourself you may have forgotten.

Strive for balance: Be kind to yourself. It’s okay to take some time out and give yourself a break by focusing on your mind, body and soul. Exercise either at home or out and about (following Government guidelines), find yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi tutorials online, get out into your garden or grow herbs on a windowsill, play music you love, be creative, and take time to notice the good things in your life. We’ve also produced a relaxation video featuring the peaceful grounds of Harcombe House, which you can watch below.

Laugh: Laughter is very good for alleviating stress. Watch a funny film or comedy show, listen to a funny podcast, or even join an online laughter yoga group. Phone the person who makes you laugh more than anyone else in the world and enjoy each other’s company.

Take on a challenge: We all have more time on our hands than ever, so think about using it positively. Learn a new hobby or pick up an old one, tackle that pile of paperwork, clear out that cupboard full of junk and make it useful. Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but never found the time to? Whatever sparks your interest, take this an opportunity to learn and grow. And why not consider raising funds for The Fire Fighters Charity in the process?

Expand your social circle: Reach out to online forums or Facebook groups and strike up conversations with people. Is a local elderly charity looking for telephone befriender volunteers? Why not reach out to some of the most vulnerable members of our society and offer them some company. The benefits of volunteering are proven to have a significant impact on our wellbeing and stress levels.

My family is stressed, how can I help them?

It’s an undeniable fact of current times, family life is different now to how it was even a month ago, whether that’s your family at home or your family at work. With no warning, the dynamics of all our relationships have changed and everyone is readjusting – partners, children, peers and ourselves. Like we’ve said, we’re all unique, so everyone is reacting differently and at different times. This can put pressure on relationships with our loved ones.

Having open, honest conversations where everyone has an opportunity to be listened to and heard can be invaluable in these challenging times. If your children are worried about coronavirus, gently explain what it is to them. Young Minds has produced some guidance on talking to your children about the virus.

Stress and anxiety filter into our relationships and if you and your partner are finding it difficult to talk to each other, the Relate website has a wealth of resources that can support you to improve your communication and help you resolve any conflict more easily.

Finding different ways to connect with each other can help to build our relationships and help us communicate. The virtual world is enormous – you could try visiting a museum together and going on a virtual tour, maybe attempt an online Escape room adventure, or even set each other daily tasks or challenges.

These are challenging times and stress is unavoidable. But The Fire Fighters Charity is here to support you so if you would like to talk to someone confidentially, call us on 0800 389 8820 or complete an enquiry online.

We’re all in this together.