By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA
A lot has changed in nursing and health care over the past few decades. Resources are diminished, patient acuity is up, and everyone is expected to do more with less. Nursing has never been an easy profession, but it seems to be pushing our limits these days.
Nurses are caregivers by nature and by profession. That means we traditionally take care of everyone else first and have little time and energy left for ourselves. The result is stress, illness, short tempers, loss of focus and perspective, and poor judgment. When your system is taxed, things start to go wrong on some level.
While its impossible to avoid stress, using these essential elements of self-care can combat
Find respite in your day
To be effective and efficient, disengage from work, even for short periods of time. Thats the recommendation from Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, the authors of The Power of Full Engagement, for people in fast-paced, high-stress situations. They claim when you work nonstop for extended periods, you start to become less effective and more prone to mistakes. Yet, many nurses regularly skip breaks, including meals. No matter where you work or what you do, its imperative to take periodic breaks for recovery and renewal, even if its only for five minutes at a time. Consider stepping outdoors, sitting in a chapel or meditation room, or finding another quiet spot where you can shift your thoughts to other matters. Disengaging for even a few moments is the pause that refreshes.
Reconnect with yourself
Many of us have gotten so caught up in a cycle of doing working at a constantly frantic pace that weve lost our sense of self. I often ask nurses what they enjoy doing. Some cannot answer the question because its been so long since they did anything for fun. Some nurses tell me they dont know what to do for fun when they have free time because theyre so unaccustomed to it. Journaling, creating self-portrait collages (cutting out words, images and symbols from magazines that you identify with), and listening to music from your youth can help you regain a sense of self. Artistic pursuits, hobbies, and time spent communing with nature also can help. You must nurture and develop all parts of yourself. Youve got to create a full, satisfying life outside of work to balance the demands of your profession.
The concept of humans as psychosomatic entities dates back to the time of Aristotle. The mind and body interact in a direct and complex way. Exercise lowers stress, improves health, keeps weight under control, improves mood, and energizes the mind. Nurses are aware of this but often ignore it in relation to themselves. Dont confuse being busy all day with exercise. These are two different things. Joining a health club or fitness center works for some people. Not only do these places provide a forum for physical activity, they offer opportunities for socializing and a haven from the workaday world. For others, getting into a walking routine is beneficial. Aside from the exercise value, walking allows you time with your thoughts if you walk alone or time for sharing and venting if you walk with a buddy. Dancing, cycling and swimming are great, too.
Use relaxation techniques
When you regularly expend physical and emotional energy, you have to refill the well or it will run dry. Meditation, deep breathing and stretching refresh and rejuvenate, and they can be done virtually anywhere. Many good books have been written on all three subjects to teach you proper technique. Even a few minutes here and there can make a world of difference. Massage, Reiki and acupressure are not luxuries; they are necessities for nurses. They ease tension and relieve tight muscles and realign body energy. Many healthcare facilities now have massage therapists and Reiki practitioners on staff to take care of employees. If youve never had a massage, you dont know what youre missing. Ask for gift certificates to salons and spas for birthdays and holidays or treat yourself. Relaxation is routine maintenance for the body, mind and spirit.
Know your limits
Many nurses work 12-hour shifts, which research tells us is detrimental to the body, mind and spirit. It pushes us to our limits and beyond, especially when working on consecutive days. Because this allows nurses to work only three days per week to accrue full time hours, some nurses then work at additional jobs or shifts on their days off. This is a recipe for rapid burnout not to mention negating a family and personal life and upping the ante on acquiring illness and worse. Nurses are not machines. There are limits to what we can do. All work and no play eventually will disrupt every aspect of your life and health. Pace yourself, create balance and learn to say No when necessary.