You have probably heard the expression that “you can’t pour water from an empty cup.” But what reservoirs of replenishment are available to healthcare workers battling a global pandemic? While there are no quick and easy fixes for this dilemma, one thing is certain: self-care for nurses has never been needed more.
What is self-care?
Self-care is defined as “anything you do to take care of yourself so you can stay physically, mentally and emotionally well” (Everyday Health). In essence, self-care is the sum of all the steps or actions you take to combat the negative effects of stress (e.g., anxiety, depression, lack of motivation, restlessness).
It is important to note that self-care is not the same as being selfish (lacking consideration for others) or self-indulgent (giving unrestrained gratification to one’s own desires). In fact, it is the complete opposite. Those who regularly practice self-care are better equipped to meet the demands of life and the needs of others on a consistent basis.
Why is self-care for nurses so important?
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, nurses the world over are facing an unprecedented amount of stress. In fact, a recent report from the International Council of Nurses (ICN) has termed this new occupational phenomenon the COVID-19 Effect, “a unique and complex form of trauma with potential devastating consequences in both the short- and long-term for individual nurses and healthcare systems.”
“What are these supposed consequences for nurses?” you ask. Prolonged exposure to intense stress is known to result in clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also cause immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep and reproductive issues. Left unchecked, it leads to higher incidences of medical malpractice. In other words, self-care for nurses is vital for the well-being of the clinician and their patients.
The Five Areas of Self-Care for Nurses
So, what does self-care for nurses entail? Psychologists debate that there are anywhere from four to eight different areas that comprise self-care. However, to keep things simple, we will only explore the five most common areas and offer practical suggestions that can easily be implemented by nurses on the go.
The thoughts that occupy your mind influence the way you feel. That is why one of the most important areas of self-care for nurses is psychological care. Nurses that consistently practice psychological self-care are better able to calm their mind when negative or persistent thoughts arise.
Psychological Self-Care Ideas
- Utilize breathing exercises
- Read or listen to a podcast or audiobook
- Work on a puzzle (e.g., jigsaw, crossword, sudoku)
- Practice visualization (e.g., imagine yourself laying on a warm, sunny beach)
- Engage in non-work-related hobbies
- Research a topic that interests you
- Seek the help of a mental health professional
When you fail to acknowledge your feelings, your body’s emotional response intensifies (i.e., you become angrier, sadder and more frustrated). Furthermore, numerous studies have found that suppressing your emotions results in physical stress on the body. Nurses that find healthy ways to address their uncomfortable emotions feel more grounded and balanced when difficulties arise.
Emotional Self-Care Ideas
- Use a gratitude journal
- Learn to say “no” when appropriate
- Avoid people that drain your energy and joy
- Post positive affirmations where you will regularly see them
- Talk with a close friend or family member that really gets you
- Experience your emotions without judgement or guilt
While nursing can be a physically demanding career, your exertions at work do not constitute physical self-care. Physical self-care involves eating a healthy diet, drinking lots of water and getting plenty of rest and exercise. While this may all sound overwhelming, the truth is that your efforts do not need to be Herculean to yield results. Consistency is key.
Physical Self-Care Ideas
- Go for a 20-minute walk
- Get a massage
- Take an Epsom salt bath
- Keep high-protein snacks handy
- Choose water over carbonated beverages
- Strive to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night
- Stop and stretch your arms, legs and back
Human beings are social creatures that rely on meaningful connections to survive and thrive. In fact, increased social isolation has been linked to depression, a decreased ability to learn, a lack of empathy and much more (Bustle). As you take the time to develop your self-care plan, be sure to include a social self-care component.
Social Self-Care Ideas
- Host a virtual dinner party
- Give someone you love a call
- Go on a date with your significant other or BFF
- Volunteer at your favorite charity
- Give genuine compliments to those around you
- Be strategic in your social media consumption
- Join a group or club that interests you
One of the most overlooked areas of self-care for nurses is professional self-care. Professional self-care encompasses anything you do to make your work life easier or to create a healthy work-life balance. If you want to have longevity and satisfaction with a nursing career, it is imperative for you to practice professional self-care.
Professional Self-Care Ideas
- Schedule a mental health day
- Declutter your work bag
- Enjoy your lunch break and other rest periods
- Form supportive relationships with likeminded coworkers
- Proactively discuss your concerns with your manager
- Turn off your phone and email when you get home (unless you are on call)
- Take an online course
There is no denying that nursing is mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting work. However, a little self-care will go a long way in helping you meet the challenges of a new day. And most importantly, remember to be gentle with yourself. It is rough out there.
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