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How to Provide Emotional Support for Patients

Hospital stays are marked by stress and worry. Patients and their families naturally fear the unfamiliar, and it is up to hospital staff to mitigate that fear.

During their stay, patients and family members will interact the most with nurses, who provide the bulk of the care and also spend the most time with the patient. In addition to medical attention, nurses are tasked with providing vital emotional support.

Healthcare professionals are hand-holders and grief counselors, fitness coaches and cheerleaders. Helping people through emotional challenges and developing a comforting bedside manner are important tasks for all healthcare professionals.

This is especially true for nurses, who are with patients from the beginning of a visit to the end, day and night.

How to be there for Patients 

Since nurses are the main source of support for patients and families, it’s important for nurses to receive training on how to relate to them and empathize with their circumstances.

The BATHE model is a psychotherapy technique that healthcare professionals can use to walk patients through their feelings. By asking questions that go along with each stage, nurses can help patients and families process difficult emotions.

  • Background (ex: Can you tell me a little bit about what’s going on in your life?)
  • Affect (ex: How is this situation going to affect you?)
  • Trouble (ex: Can you tell me what’s troubling you the most about this?)
  • Handling (ex: How are you going to handle this?)
  • Empathy (ex: I understand this is hard for you.)

Psychosocial care is another aspect of nursing, used mostly in oncology and in long-term care. Psychosocial care involves meeting a patient’s emotional and mental needs, which allows them to cope with life changes such as a cancer diagnosis or adjusting to aging.  According to the DeSouza Institute, this form of support can decrease psychosocial distress and physical symptoms.

A study published by the National Institutes of Health on the use of psychosocial care in oncology nursing stated that “involvement or emotional closeness was seen as a necessary, inevitable and potentially stressful feature of psychosocial care.”

Other Ways to Provide Emotional Support

When working with families who’ve lost a loved one or patients who are reeling from a recent diagnosis, it’s important to remember the best ways to interact with them. Many will be in shock and won’t want to hear, “I know how you feel.” Instead, reach out and tell them you understand their loss is tough and devastating, and you can only imagine how they feel.

Ask about their loved one if they’ve just lost them. Ask them if they have photos, or ask about their favorite memory of them. This shows you care and empathize with them, and it gives them a chance to process their emotions.

In this tough time, they might not know what they need to do. Frame your questions with suggestions like, “Can I call another family member for you? Can I get you a letter for your employer or school? What else can I do to support you?” It may also help them to ask who their support system will be in the days to come, especially if you’re working with an elderly person who just lost a longtime spouse.

Inquire about their spiritual needs. Families may want to speak to a chaplain or other religious figure, or they may want to visit the hospital chapel on their own.

If all else fails, it’s okay to tell them you don’t know what to say. If two parents have just lost an infant unexpectedly, no words will suffice. They’ll understand, and will appreciate that you’re there supporting them, even if you aren’t saying anything. They may also need space to process what has happened, so observe social cues and give them “alone” time if needed.

Monitor Your Own Emotional Stability

As a medical care professional, taking care of yourself is also important. Without doing this, you won’t be as effective in helping your patients navigate their grief or distress. Nurses can often face burnout or even vicarious trauma if they don’t take mental breaks and deal with what they are seeing.

If your organization offers an employee assistance program, take advantage of that and discuss your feelings with someone who can help you. Leave work at the workplace, if possible. Spend your time away from work doing things that help you release stress, like going for a run or meditating.

Finding a self-care strategy that works for you can help you become a better nurse in the long run. If you are emotionally well, you can focus your empathy on the needs of your patients.

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