Self-Care: The New Nurse's Guide to Taking Care of Your Mind
The first year of your career as a nurse is an exciting time - you are going to learn and grow so much! No matter what area of nursing you choose for your first job, the learning curve is big, and there is so much responsibility! As nurses, we are responsible for the life of our patient, whether that's a laboring mom, a newborn, sedated surgical patient, or the end-of-life geriatric patient. You are expected to know a vast amount of information and be prepared to respond to so many situations. We take a lot of classes in our nursing programs, but I'm betting you didn't have a single class on taking care of YOU! Isn't that crazy? There's a reason they tell you on an airplane to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping someone else, and the same is true as a nurse. One of the best things you can do for yourself and for your nursing career is to take care of yourself.
Here are 5 areas to focus on to take care of your mind during your first year as a nurse...and for the rest of your career!
1. Know your limits - It's not uncommon in most healthcare settings to frequently be asked to work overtime. There may be times when you are happy to pick up an extra shift (and pad your paycheck a little!), and it won't interfere with the rest of your life. But that's not always the case, and it's ok to say "no!" Before you accept extra work hours, think about how many hours you are already scheduled and what other commitments you already have for the week. If you pick up a shift tomorrow, how many days in a row will that leave you working? Remember, you can't help anyone else if you are completely worn down from overtime!
2. Ask for help! - Sometimes we can all feel a little overwhelmed. You may have a very heavy patient load or a situation that you haven't experienced before that you need help with. Often, we don't want to ask for help because our coworkers are working so hard too. And it can feel embarrassing to tell your coworkers and supervisors that you're in a little over your head or that you don't know how to do something. But it could mean the difference between life and death for your patients and your career! Ask for help - ask questions, ask for a coworker to come assist you, and ask your supervisor for help. It is not a sign of incompetence or weakness to ask for help. On the contrary, the nurse who is never willing to ask questions or ask for help is the one I worry about most!
3. Spirituality - Spirituality focuses on connection (whether that is with a Higher Power, nature, or a connection with other people), your personal well-being, and a sense of peace and hope even when times are hard. How can you find hope while feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or depressed? If you believe in a Higher Power, you might find hope through prayer, meditation, Bible or book study, or attending a religious event. Spending time alone in nature can bring peace and calm when things feel chaotic and stressful. Listening to empowering music, reading empowering self-help books, or doing an activity such as yoga may help you shift your thinking from the internalized feelings of stress to a feeling of peace.
4. Debrief after traumatic events - There are some settings where nurses don't experience as many traumatic experiences. But if you are involved in direct patient care, you will probably experience at least one traumatic event within your first year. Traumatic events might include your first time administering CPR, a physical altercation with a patient or family, an expected patient demise, or a disaster event. Whatever the experience, know that it's ok to talk about it. Ask a co-worker to go grab a drink after work or ask to meet them for coffee. If your facility has a pastoral care program, ask to spend a few minutes with them. If there has been a disaster, your employer may provide a formal debriefing through a trained professional. And after a traumatic event is a great time to reach out to your Employee Assistance Program!
5. Talk, talk, talk! - Let's face it: life is stressful! But the things that nurses see, the things we are told by patients or families, or the trauma we may experience all make life a lot more stressful. While there has been a stigma about mental health in the past, there has been a big shift to change that attitude, and people are being more and more transparent about the struggles they are experiencing. Personally, I think everyone should have a therapist in their phone contact list! Thankfully, it's never been easier to take care of our mental health!
Most larger employers in the U.S. offer an Employee Assistance Program (or EAP) to help access mental health services. An EAP isn't for long-term therapy but typically offers a small number of therapy sessions at no cost to the employee and then assists with getting you established with another provider if additional therapy is needed. Employees can access EAP services for personal or family issues or problems related to work.
Nurses may find it difficult to schedule therapy appointments around their work or family schedules. But thanks to online options it is much more convenient to access mental health services at a time that works for you! Using an online therapy service is convenient and may give you a little more flexibility in finding a therapist that is a good fit for your needs and personality. Verywell Mind has a fabulous list of the best online therapy services
for easy access.
Talking to your primary care provider is also a great resource for getting a mental health referral. Your PCP is part of your team and wants to be part of addressing your overall health, so be open and honest with how you're feeling or problems you are experiencing. If you are experiencing physical symptoms, you might need the assistance of some medication (short or long-term) from your PCP. But they can also provide recommendations for support groups and other mental health providers.
There are plenty of other ways to reduce your stress level besides therapy. Finding physical outlets or activities you enjoy, such as yoga, dance, or running, can be very beneficial in reducing stress levels and increasing the release of endorphins to improve mood. Other activities that bring you joy and help with stress might be painting, knitting, book clubs, music, or church.
Hopefully, focusing on these 5 areas can help you manage your stress to help you enjoy a long and happy career as a nurse! And just know, no matter what challenges you face in your career, you are not the first one to face it or to feel the way you do. This job you have is HARD! But it doesn't have to consume you. Put on your own oxygen mask, and we'll keep plugging along together to help others!