Emotion Regulation in Healthcare Workers

27 May, 2020
In their day-to-day, healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, etc.) face challenges that affect their own mental health. It's difficult not to fall prey to the emotional and professional burden that comes with treating patients who are in poor health conditions.

Emotion regulation in healthcare workers helps them acknowledge the usefulness and the transitory nature of emotions. In addition, it helps them manage the impact of their thoughts and ensures they don’t fall prey to emotional attachment.

In general, emotional self-regulation means having the ability to recognize, manage, and control your emotions. Psychology defines it as a basic process of emotional intelligence that’s crucial to developing communication skills, which are necessary when working with patients.

But in order to practice emotion regulation if you work in a healthcare environment, you must first understand what the process entails. Training in emotion regulation is the “ability to be open to both pleasant and unpleasant feelings“. (Fernandez, 2010).

Hervàs’ model of emotion regulation based on emotion processing (2011) divided this process into several tasks, or stages, that one must complete in order to reach said regulation:

  • Openness. To identify, live and express your own emotions.
  • Emotional attention. The ability to recognize your emotions and be aware of them.
  • Labeling or identifying emotions and “naming” them.
  • Acceptance or embracing the emotions you’re experiencing.
  • Analysis. Reflecting and understanding the meaning and the consequences of emotions.
  • Emotion regulation.
A woman a the doctor's.

The thought-emotion relationship

There’s a bidirectional relationship between emotions and thoughts. Both complement each other, and if one fails, the other one is at risk. Thus, a constant negative thought you can’t unhook yourself from affects the way you feel. Likewise, a negative emotion that doesn’t reflect reality inevitably affects your thoughts.

A common example of this in healthcare workers is thinking that they can’t correctly take care of a patient due to lack of time. That dissatisfaction leads to feelings of frustration, stress, or helplessness. At the same time, those emotions “fuel” those thoughts, making the situation even worse.

A solution to this problem would be changing the situation by acting on it. But this is impossible sometimes, especially in healthcare environments where workers have to deal with patients that don’t get better or patients with terminal illnesses or limited resources.

Therefore, it’s necessary to have mechanisms that help manage emotions. That’s the only way healthcare workers will be able to offer quality treatment to their patients.

Stress in healthcare workers

Multiple studies establish a negative relationship between emotional intelligence and professional stress. Furthermore, research says that more emotional intelligence training leads to lower stress levels and burnout prevention (Bajo Gallego and González Hervías, 2014).

The benefits of mindfulness in patients

Mindfulness means awareness, which consists of focusing on the present moment and putting one’s attention in the here and now. However, it’s important that you do it:

  • Without judging.
  • Without expectations.
  • By opening your mind to everything that surrounds you.
  • From a learning standpoint and with the mind of a beginner. 
  • With self-compassion.
A woman meditating.

It’s been demonstrated that mindfulness increases emotion regulation. Besides, it also improves the healthcare worker-patient relationship. More specifically, mindfulness:

  • Increases general well-being and reduces dysfunctional emotional states and physical symptoms in chronic illnesses.
  • Prevents further deterioration in Alzheimer’s patients. 
  • It benefits patients who suffer from stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Counteracts the negative effects of chronic stress in cancer patients.
  • Improves physical functioning, body pain, general health, social functioning, and mental health in patients with fibromyalgia.

The purpose of mindfulness isn’t to get rid of your thoughts but to accept them and your feelings in order to disassociate yourself from them. Mindfulness helps you understand that you’re just going through transitory emotional states that don’t define who you are. Therefore, if you regularly practice mindfulness, you’ll become an expert on regulating your own emotions.

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