Stress Reduction Tactics Every Nurse Should Try
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You spend so much time caring for others that you put yourself last. Your mind and body deserve some me-time.
Patient care is only as good as the care you give yourself. And as the saying goes, the more you fill up your own cup, the more you can pour into the cups of others.
That's the message Alison Hernandez, PhD, RN-BC, has for all nurses, but especially those who are stressed out (which may be the majority)!
As many as 92% of nurses report moderate-to-very-high stress levels, according to a 2018 study. Among the study participants, 78% got fewer than 8 hours of sleep per night and 69% reported not exercising regularly. Those who reported high stress had the worst health outcomes and the highest health risk behaviors.
Nurses: It's time to do a better job of taking care of ourselves.
Find What Works for You, and Do More of It
In our society, the word stress comes with a negative connotation. But Hernandez points out that stress is an adaptive mechanism, and our bodies are almost always in a constant state of adapting. That's not necessarily bad.
"Staying in prolonged bouts of stress is what wreaks havoc on our bodies and minds," says Hernandez. "That leads to depression, anxiety, and other health changes — all under-talked-about issues in the nursing profession. Prolonged stress also generates an immune response, that can lead to inflammation, which can worsen chronic health conditions. Chronic stress can predispose us to engage in behaviors that lead to weight gain, physical inactivity, and loss of sleep — which are harder to remedy once they set in."
It's crucial to find stress reduction tactics that eliminate prolonged, high stress levels. Not sure what that could be for you? It's anything that helps you unwind and connects you back to what brings you joy.
The Tried-and-True Stress Reliever: Exercise
There's a reason exercise is always mentioned in stress reduction articles: It works. Purposeful exercise or leisure physical activities (like gardening, walking your dog, etc.) will help get your heart rate up and endorphins flowing. Both are linked to physiological, stress-reducing benefits.
The problem: Many nurses argue that after a 12-hour shift on their feet, they have no energy left to exercise.
"That's perfectly understandable," says Hernandez. "But once you're feeling rested, incorporate some movement on your days off, even in small ways. Exercise does not have to be running a marathon, it can be cleaning your house. The endorphin-boost will help offset the stress from your work shifts and improve your mood and sleep."
There are so many different ways to exercise, and each person has their own preferences. Hernandez shared her recommendations:
- Cardio-focused workouts (running, walking, dancing) or strength training workouts (lifting weights, pilates, or plyometric exercises): Any movement that gets your heart pumping is key to releasing stress-reducing endorphins.
- Yoga and tai-chi: Both are mind/body techniques that incorporate movement and breathing practices, and can help bring you to a state of surrender and relaxation. If you like more relaxing yoga, try looking for restorative and yin yoga classes online or at a studio near you.
- Meditation: Mediation helps us look at our life with surrender and acceptance. Once learned, it can change the way you react to your everyday life. It helps make you less reactive and more adaptive. One easy way to start practicing mediation is by incorporating it in your everyday chores. For example, while you're washing dishes, focus on the feeling of the water and soap on your hands. Pay attention to the sensations. The more you practice this type of focus, the easier it gets.
- Conscious breathing and breath awareness: Much like meditation, learning to take long, deep breaths (from your diaphragm) helps produce a sense of calm wherever you are. Research shows this technique provides powerful effects to our bodies' fight-or-flight response.
"Breath is so innate to our existence," says Hernandez on conscious breathing techniques. "When we start to get anxious, the first thing that changes is our breath. We see that when our patients are in pain. That's when you want to tap into the power of deep breathing. Inhale for 4 counts, then let out for 4-3-2-1. Repeat for one minute."
"Getting enough sleep is as important as the air we breathe," said Hernandez. "Sleep renovates and restores our bodies, and gives our brain the recharge needed to tackle our work efficiently."
Chronic stress can dirupt your sleep and affect how you feel at work. Build a healthy sleep routine by taking a warm bath before, and turning of your phone and TV at least one hour before sleep. Make sure you get 7 to 8 hours of rest every night.
Trust Your Gut
Chronic stress leads to both over and undereating behaviors. When we're stressed out, we tend to reach for highly-processed carbohydrate-heavy foods because our bodies are asking for quick energy. But our gut is a reservoir for feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin that get diminished with processed foods. Eating whole-foods (like veggies, protein, good fats) can help buffer stress from the inside out.
The Power of the Mind: Positive Psychology
You can't control everything that happens during your nursing shift. Research from Judy Moskowitz, PhD, shows you can take control of your thoughts and reactions and instantly reduce your stress. Here are a few ways to start:
- Reappraisal: Anytime something negative happens — reframe the issue, look for the silver lining. Example: If you make a mistake at work and another staff member corrects you, use it as a learning opportunity. Think: "I can be a better nurse because someone made sure I was doing this the right way."
- Savor and amplify positive events: Anytime you have a moment of success — big or small — pause and celebrate. Example: A patient who hasn't gotten out of bed in days was able to walk around the unit. Take a moment to acknowledge that milestone, and let that feeling of accomplishment sink in. Share it with someone else on your unit, or tell a loved one at home to amplify that positive event.
- Gratitude journal: Of course you're thankful for your health, your job, and your family. Instead of repeating the same things you're grateful for, get smaller. This makes it more tangible than when you repeatedly say the same thing. Example: I made the most amazing cup of coffee this morning, or I got to work early.
- Random acts of kindness for yourself: As a nurse, you're always doing things for others and this has shown to have a positive effect on health. But you may struggle with self-compassion. To lower stress levels, you must take care of yourself and not feel guilty about it. Example: Indulge and prioritize in what brings you joy, like crafting, reading, spending time with friends, taking bubble baths, or taking naps.
High stress levels affect quality of life and can lead to burnout, a serious state that not only burdens your mind and body, and the quality of your work. The more you use stress reduction tactics, the more they become like a muscle — strong and usable without thinking twice.
Used with permission from ANA Enterprise's Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation™.