Chill Out: Five Tips to Cool Down On-the-Job Stress

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By Mandy Young, MSN/MPH ’09

By its nature, nursing is a stressful profession.  After all, we care for people in moments of extreme vulnerability and crisis.  Learning how to manage stress isn’t just part of a healthy lifestyle for nurses; it is an act of survival. 

In our rush to take care of our patients’ needs, we are prone to neglect ourselves, which affects not only our own health but also our ability to care for patients.  We need to establish habits and routines with our everyday, on-the-job choices that improve our overall wellness.  Just as eating one salad doesn’t suddenly make a junk food diet healthy, getting one massage doesn’t create a stress-free life.  

So here are a few tips for survival in the fast lane:

1. Take Five Minutes For Yourself.   
Much of my increased efficiency, and lower stress, has resulted from the way I manage my time during a shift.  I used to run around trying to “get everything done” before taking a break for myself.  This often meant that the entire shift went by without taking a break!  I was hungry half the shift and would overeat when I finally got a chance to have a meal.  Is it any wonder that I started to put on weight after becoming a nurse?
 
I now come to work with small prepared meals that can be eaten on-the-go in minutes while charting or double checking meds.  I make a point to eat every two to three hours so my blood sugar never drops and my metabolism is burning high with plenty of energy.  My mini-meal breaks only last three to five minutes, but they have become a regular “pause button” that allows me to stop, breathe, and reprioritize tasks.  While finding the time for a 30 or 45 minute break is challenging, there are very few things that can’t wait just a couple of minutes so you can take care of your own needs.

2. Breathe. 
There is a natural tendency to let stress build up and then blow it off all at once.  But research shows that stress is best handled in the moment, by stopping to become conscious with your body and slow your heart rate down. If you have ever taken a yoga class, it is likely that your instructor led you through breathing and/or guided imagery exercise to consciously relax your muscles and remove tension.  Yoga is a great tool for developing the ability to consciously relax your body which can then be transferred to the work setting. 

3. Exercise.
The stress we face at work takes a toll on our bodies. Taking care of our bodies through regular exercise counteracts the effects of stress, so much so that you will notice and feel the difference when you are exercising regularly.  I confess that I struggle with maintaining this habit of health as much as anyone else.  It helps to find fun activities and change them up regularly so I don’t become bored.  I’ve also collected quite a list of fitness resources at a variety of price ranges in my community so that I can help my clients find a way to exercise that fits their interests and budgets. 

4. Don’t Take It Personally.
It isn’t about you.  Really.  None of us see the world as it is.  We see the world the way we are.  We are all operating from different viewpoints based on our experiences, values, cultural norms, etc.   And these affect how we treat each other.  

When I first became a nurse, if a patient or family member complained to me about something—anything—I would feel like they thought I was a bad nurse.  I would get defensive.  But their grievance isn’t really about me.  Now, I recognize that complaints are really requests in disguise.  When patients or families are complaining, they are feeling pain or discomfort and are providing valuable information on how I can help them.  When I feel my defenses come up, I take myself out of the equation by reminding myself, “It’s just information.”  Then I am able to focus on what they are telling me instead of my feelings.  
 
Perhaps the greater challenge is dealing with the criticism of fellow employees.  While we all know, in theory, that feedback is valuable information that can help us become better at our job, it doesn’t change the fact that criticism is hard to take.  But remember, the criticism is actually information on how an individual is experiencing the world around them—a mix of your behavior and how they are interpreting what you say and do.  
 
The trick is taking yourself out of the equation so you can then weigh their critique based on its own merit rather than on how it makes you feel.  One method is to write it down and then review content later when you can be objective about it.  For example, I once belonged to a writers group where we would bring our compositions for feedback from everyone in the group.  I always wrote everyone’s comments down but only I could decide which feedback would help me write a better story, poem, or article.  When someone critiques your work as a nurse, try to discern what comments will actually help you be a better nurse or co-worker and what comments are just best forgotten. 

5. Fun is a Necessity. 
There is a reason why “the family that plays together stays together.”  Recreation is about reconnecting and redefining relationships.  Fun makes us human to each other.  It opens opportunity to build understanding and connect on a deeper level.  
 
Having staff parties to build camaraderie is just a first step.  Try swapping magazines with your patients or gossiping over the latest movie star scandal while you help them to the bathroom.  My personal favorite is to sing a lullaby or favorite song to my patients.  Since most are stuck in bed watching television all day, discussing a favorite television show or movie is always easy.  
 
We each have our own unique story for why and how we choose to become nurses.  If we aren’t careful, we can let the stress of the job drive us instead of the reasons why we came into this profession.  Like many other aspects of health, stress management is a lifestyle.  Picking one simple change and building on it is often the best way to approach making a lifestyle change. 

Check out more tips from Mandy, and other nurses like her, at www.stressedoutnurses.com.

Learn More Online

• The American Institute of Stress www.stress.org/

• Mayo Clinic www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-management/MY00435

• National Institute of Health www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/stress.html

• American Holistic Nurses Association www.ahna.org/Resources/StressManagement/tabid/1229/Default.aspx

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