Healthy Living — 12 July 2012
Stress Management for Nurses: How to Identify and Handle Tough Times

You arrive on the floor to find that you’ve pulled the hardest assignment – again.  You have eight patients, and all of them are challenging.  You have no nurse’s aides to help you today, and you are expected to do all of your own vital signs.  Already, four call bells are going off and you can hear one little old lady calling, “Nurse!  Nurse!”  You feel a tidal wave of dread rising within you.  This is stress rearing its ugly head, and how you deal with this emotion will determine how you deal with nursing in general.

You may recognize some of the feelings and situations in the example above because almost every nurse has faced a day where the stress is overwhelming.  You deal with short staffing, demanding patients, and life or death decisions that often need to be made within minutes.  When you leave the hospital or other place of work, you can question yourself if you did everything right.  If you are not careful, stress can easily consume you.  It is important to recognize the symptoms, take care of yourself, and go for more help when needed.


Signs and Symptoms

Stress can show itself in many ways: physical, thought patterns, behaviors, and feelings.  Physically, you may feel cardiovascular symptoms, such as pounding, palpitations, or racing.  Your palms may sweat, you might have nausea, headache, trembling, aching muscles, chest pain, easily startling, or forgetfulness, according to the Royal College of Nursing.  Your thoughts may race.  You may demand too much of yourself and of others, maybe more than they are capable of giving.  You are disorganized, down on yourself, can’t make decisions, and tend to blow things out of proportion.  You may act differently, too, and not take your scheduled breaks, withdraw from social activities, become prone to accidents, and become aggressive.  It is very easy for you to feel anxious, fearful, depressed, restless, panicky, and guilty, and have easy mood swings between these feelings.


Self Care

The best way to handle stress is to take care of yourself before you start to show these symptoms, or while these symptoms are mild.  Eating well and exercising regularly are two of the best ways to combat stress because they make your body as healthy as possible, and give you an outlet for stressful emotions.  Relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation are also helpful because they help to calm your nerves and your racing thoughts.  Of course, you have to find ways of taking it easy.  It is vital that you find ways to balance your work with your time off.  You need to find ways to completely disconnect from your work, and to allow your mind the time to rest.  Identify what your stressors are, and determine which you can control or influence and which you have to accept.  Also, find ways to allow yourself emotional release, such as talking to a trusted friend or keeping a journal.


Advanced Care

When stress gets to the point that you cannot control your thoughts, emotions, or behaviors, you may need the help of a trained counselor.  Sometimes stress can make you feel hopeless, and like there is no way out of your situation.  It can make everything feel overwhelming.  Sometimes these feelings can lead to thoughts of hurting yourself.  When your thoughts become this dark, you need to immediately seek the help of a professional to assist you in dealing with your stress.  Medications may also help to regulate your emotions, and to help you to handle the stress that you are facing.  Talking your stress out with a trained professional can help you gain perspective on it, and ultimately, gain mastery over it.


Royal College of Nursing; Managing Your Stress; Rachel Murray; 2005

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About Author

I am a registered nurse with three years experience on a medical-surgical floor in a busy city hospital. In my work, I encountered patient populations such as post-op open heart, gastric bypass, active chest pain, and many other chronic and acute disease functions. I am familiar with the nutrition, diet and fitness fields, as well, from working with obese patients and conducting teaching.

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