woman slumped over cityscape ledge looking depressed dealing with stress in nursing

We have finally made it to 2021! My guess is that it has taken blood, sweat, and tears — and likely a combination of your, your teams’, and your patients’ to get here. Registered nurses, and really all frontline healthcare workers, are no strangers to job stresses, but this year has unleashed novel sources of stress and increased emotional demands on everyone.

Workplace stress is at an all-time high, with working conditions threatening the health and safety of healthcare staff and patients alike. Unfortunately, there’s not much we, as individuals, can do to change the current situation (aside from continuing to do our part to stop the spread). But what we can do is adopt new, and effective, stress management techniques.

Many of us have already set intentions for the new year, and if we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that the ubiquitous notion of “self-care” needs to be at the top of the list for healthcare providers everywhere in 2021. If you’re like me, hearing the term “self-care” now elicits an eye roll on a good day, and a few choice words on a more difficult one. 

Maybe you’ve even had the following thoughts: 

  • “When will I find time for self-care?” 
  • “Who has the funds or PTO needed for a spa day?” 
  • “Self-care is great… for people not working 16-hour nursing shifts at a given time, or getting called in because someone else called out, or being so exhausted by the time I get home I barely know my name.” 

You know, the usual. 

However, I will share a little secret. My reaction to the term changed once I reframed and renamed it to “restorative care,” as that brings us back to the core of what self-care is – a return to balance and wholeness. A sense of homeostasis, if you will. 

Restorative care does not have to be something added into our lives (an addition of time, money, or both); it actually works best when it’s incorporated into what we already do. And yes, that means right smack in the beginning, middle, and end of our workdays. If you’d like to begin implementing restorative care into your life, check out my top five restorative-care techniques below.

5 Actionable Strategies for Dealing with Stress in Nursing

1. Bookend the Day 

As I know you all are well aware, your patients are likely to experience a reduction in stress or anxiety when they know what to expect at the beginning, middle, and end (after) of a procedure. While the “middle” part of the day in life of a nurse is likely to be completely unpredictable (and wrought with nurse stress), the “beginning” and “end” of a shift allow for more consistency.

Try listening to a particular song on your commute into work and another once you head home. Consider starting each day with a reminder that you will do your best given the stress that awaits and then end with a reminder that you did the best you could, and now it’s time for a break. 

bookend books with plant on top stress in nursing bookend the day

2. Remember Your “Why” 

One of the best ways to balance burnout or burnover is by connecting back with the reason you became a nurse. Maybe you entered the field because a nurse had a positive impact on your life, and you want to return the experience to others. 

Perhaps you became a nurse because you are committed to increase access to quality care for those in need regardless of their insurance status. Maybe you are driven by reducing stigma related to health-related issues. 

Whatever the “why,” I encourage you to jot it down in a simple sentence or two, and post it somewhere where you can refer back to it on a rough day. Some folks put it on a sticky note in their bathroom, some on a card they leave in their car, some at their nursing station, and some stick it between the cards in their ID badge. 

You can even put on your phone’s lock screen. Treat it like a message in a bottle when your “why” feels lost. On days that not even your “why” is enough to pick you up, try to find at least one thing to be grateful for… even if it’s just being grateful the day finally ended

3. Engage in Grounding 

Without fail, there will be times that flip your lid, and we all know there is no time in a nurse’s schedule to accommodate a lengthy cool-down period. In those moments, anchor yourself with some sensory grounding by looking around and finding:

  • Five items of a certain color 
  • Four different sounds you hear
  • Three different textures to touch
  • Two full-body shakes or stomps of each foot
  • One cleansing breath with a loooong exhale

Notice the difference in your body before and after the grounding exercise. Even if you’re skeptical, I encourage you to try it.

4. Peaceful Imagery 

Here’s another idea for behind your badge. Find a small photograph or image from a magazine of something you find peaceful or soothing to look at – it may be a natural landscape, a person you love or admire, or even a pet. Simply look at and connect with the image when you need a quick pick-me-up. 

pretty benches on lakefront view fall weather peaceful imagery dealing with stress in nursing

5. Let the Memes do the Talking 

Humor is another antidote to stress. Save your memes to a photo folder on your phone or leave a funny one printed out for the person on the next shift to find at the station. If humor isn’t your thing, consider doing a random act of kindness (RAK) for a colleague; a small token like a sticker, pen, or quick note can go a long way in boosting positive relationships at work. 

There are also a variety of apps that can help keep stress at bay throughout the day, or even at night as you try to decompress before bed.

6. Bonus! When and How to Find Additional Support

Sometimes we go through periods where the stress of it all feels a little too much. If you find yourself experiencing changes in mood, sleep, or even general view of the world (just to name a few), consider reaching out for some therapeutic support. Check out a site like psychologytoday.com, where you can search for a therapist based on zip code, insurance, or modality used (like art therapy, EMDR, CBT, etc.). 

The increase of telehealth means you could potentially be with a therapist in another part of your state without leaving the comfort of your home. This is particularly important if that therapist utilizes a therapeutic approach that really speaks to you. In a high-stress field like nursing, you may want to consider a therapist who specializes in treating chronic stress or secondary traumatic stress (STS). 

Managing stress is difficult for everyone, and stress management for nurses is no different. Like anything, it takes practice, and just a simple shift each day can lead to a big reduction in work-related stress.  

Looking for More Mental Health Resources for Nurses?

You can view our Mental Health Resources page for additional tools and resources.

This article was originally published on Trusted Health’s blog.