How I handled stress as an emergency call handler

by Jessica Tett

The five years I worked as an emergency call handler were the most stressful of my life, and now as an auditor, I still have to do a number of hours each month emergency call handling – and still can find them highly stressful. If it’s a really busy shift, or if I have a bad call, I notice my body tensing up, my senses becoming heightened and the places I carry my stress (for me, my shoulders and my stomach) almost seizing up in anticipation. Chemically, I guess my body is getting ready to fight, fly or freeze in response to what it thinks is a life-threateningly frightening situation. It's trying to protect me – an intention I do my best to appreciate.

After all this time, I have learnt some ways to manage this stress and these at times intolerable feelings. I'll share my ways with you – not because I think they'll work for you too, but because they might, and maybe just thinking about these will lead you to think of and try out ways that will work for you. Your colleagues will have their own ways - talk to them, I know some of my best strategies came from colleagues, they are the people who really know.

Something that really helped me keep calm during a shift was being able to step away for a few minutes. If I could walk away, I could remind myself that I was safe, and soothe all those chemicals rushing around my body ready to protect me. I'm someone who doesn't always want other people to know how I'm feeling. I also don’t want to talk about ‘it’ before I’ve had a chance to look at it myself, and I want a few minutes of quiet. The toilet was usually a good place to go for this!

It helped to take a moment or two to just breathe, maybe imagining I could see my breath going in and out like gold threads. Sometimes I repeated “lots of love in, lots of love out” as I breathed. If I was somewhere with a bit of room, I’d do a yoga pose or a power pose, as moving my body felt good. Sometimes I felt like I’d really like a hug or some physical contact with another human. Of course none of us can have that just now – but there are a few ways you can hug yourself – not quite as good, but can be helpful.

My favourite yoga pose for times like this: Goddess Pose (Utkata Konasana): Asana Instructions & Photos • Yoga Basics

Yoga for your desk:

Just in case you need some hints: How to Hug Yourself: 10 Steps (with Pictures) - wikiHow

To make the most of my breaks, I tried to get outside, even if it was just a walk across the car park and back. There is something restorative about feeling the air on my skin and seeing natural light, or looking up at the moon. If the weather allowed, I'd sit outside to eat my lunch and read my book, and it would feel like I'd been somewhere else.

I know a lot of us have different rituals when we finish a shift, different ways we try and mark the end of work, and ways to put whatever has happened somewhere else, so we don't take it home. A colleague puts it all in her locker, and leaves it behind. For me, I drive away from work with my car window open, and imagine throwing it all out of the window to float away in the wind. I sing along to the radio, and remind myself of the joy in my life, and list the things I am grateful for.

Outside work, after a busy set of shifts, days off can sometimes feel more like recovery days: days to replenish, nurture and nourish myself. As well as all the boring tasks of life – shopping, housework, laundry etc – I have to prioritise doing something fun, ideally with friends, but if that’s impossible, my dog is usually up for something. Doing something creative is also important: cooking, painting, making cushions and toys for the dog. It feels like I have to go in to work with a full cup – full of resilience – and spend my time off re-filling that cup.

Sometimes though doing all this isn’t going to be enough, as you might have other stressful or upsetting things going on outside work. For me, when I found I wasn’t sleeping, I was a lot more irritable than normal and I really couldn’t stop thinking about work, then I knew I wasn’t ok, and needed to do something else to help, went to my GP, and ended up taking time off work. For me, it felt like I needed to be away from the control room so my body could properly relax, and I could put particular calls behind me, and get a break from the constant distress call handlers are exposed to.

Dealing with stress is something we all have to do, no matter what our roles are, and at times knowing this feels stressful – just another thing on the to do list, how can I possibly fit it in? When it does feel easy to do things that fill your cup, do these things. Enjoy yourself as much as you can, and fill your cup right to the top, so that when things start to feel overwhelming, you already have some resilience in there, and you also have good habits and routines in place. Keep a special look out for the joy and beauty in your life, and pay attention to it. If things feel like they are getting worse, talk to people – colleagues, family, friends, your doctor. Sharing how you feel with someone really can work like magic.

Good luck with finding your own best ways of helping with your stress levels, and don’t forget to get some help if you need it. Don’t put it off either – just when we most need to do something to get some help is often when we really feel like we can’t.

Keep visiting the Wellbeing pages on @sas for links to help and ideas for managing stress.

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