The Perils of Being a Healthcare Professional in Recovery Amid COVID-19

Few are immune to the pressure and stress of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic, but there is one cohort of workers that are facing a unique and potentially dangerous situation, but not in ways you think. They are healthcare professionals in recovery from addiction. 

Healthcare professionals have a reputation for being the worst patients. They focus all their attention on others and often see that as a badge of courage. They suffer from the idea that if they require help themselves, they aren’t able to provide help at the same time. It’s all or nothing. 

To get a healthcare professional (or anyone really) into addiction recovery to begin with is a small miracle, because they often have to be convinced they ‘have a problem’ in the first place. Because of their status in their community, they don’t want to admit they have a problem with anything, because for many of them, a strong ego and high self esteem are required for their job, and have allowed them to advance to the professional success they’ve achieved. 

Stress is one of the biggest predictors of relapse for a person in recovery, because of one, simple, inescapable truth: The stressed brain craves. A craving is a cue to self soothe. It’s the brain’s way of trying to reset the nervous system out of the sympathetic stress response back to the parasympathetic ‘relaxation response – ‘ a term coined by Harvard researcher Dr. Herbert Benson.  

Workplace stress for a healthcare professional (HCP) in recovery is a key battleground for their sobriety. Their nervous system gets activated throughout the day due to the various rigors of the healthcare system itself, carrying an emotional burden for patients and their families – or the effort not to, interpersonal challenges with colleagues and staff, regulation, insurance, and payment. An HCP puts themselves in a high stress environment for long hours, and as such confronts the possibilities of cravings on a daily basis.

All this existed before COVID-19. Now, there are three new stressors that co-exist, and they have to do with home.  

  1. HCPs are highly sensitized to the spread of disease through years of training, and as such, they see COVID-19 in a different light than the average person. They see a novel virus that is in order of magnitude more lethal and more contagious than any of its predecessors. They are therefore concerned about exposing themselves to the virus at work on a daily basis. 
  2. Because of the contagious nature of the virus, HCPs are also concerned about bringing it home with them and potentially exposing their loved ones to it, since with COVID-19, they don’t have to be symptomatic to transmit the disease. In this case, literally no one knows whether they are spreading the disease, regardless of whether they have symptoms. As parents, we don’t want to see our children sick, but if aging parents are under the same roof, the risk escalates for them tremendously.
  3. If the HCP has school-aged children, those children have been required to learn from home since some point this spring, and there may or may not be someone in the house who can help, but it’s not the HCP.  They’re either at work, or asleep trying to rest up for their evening or night shift. The feeling of failing as a parent is an existential burden that causes deep shame, something anyone in recovery already has plenty of and works to shed.  PS Those same children are about to embark on a summer vacation with either few or no summer camps to speak of. What does the HCP do with their child for two and a half months? This is a logistical challenge, but also… see #3 for the shame of feeling like a failure as a parent for not being there.

All of this to say that if you’re a healthcare worker in recovery, and you’re not taking extra counteraction to regulate your nervous system, you are at extra risk now more than ever of relapse. 

One of the easiest ways to add a layer of recovery tools to your self-care regimen is to consider what you are putting in your ears on your commute to and from work. You have that time in your day already. If you are not listening to music turn off your stress on your commute because you’re listening to podcasts instead, let me share a podcast you can listen to that has music in it! I recently released a podcast called “Reduce Your Stress with Tim Ringgold” and it’s designed – literally – just for you! Each episode is a composition of relaxing instrumental acoustic guitar using a loop pedal. Think: Enya, but with guitar. The purpose of the music is to help turn off your stress on the way in so you can show up powerfully for those you serve, and then listen again on the way home so you can show up peacefully and be present for those you love. 

The music compositions are approximately 10 minutes in length, so it’s not a big time commitment, and by the time you get to the end of one, your nervous system is in a different gear than when you began it. Try it, and if you only want to use it one way, meaning on the way in or the way home, no problem! I know one ICU doc who listens on the way home each day to unravel all the stress that has built up during the shift.

That’s just one technique. In my Music In Recovery Self Care Guide for Health Care Professionals, I share FIVE ways to reach for music to enhance and protect your recovery journey. You can grab that for free at

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