Why is self-care important for nurses, and how can they nurture this vital skill?

People in every profession experience stress at some point in their working lives – it’s a natural response to events that make us feel pressured and uncomfortable. By having a positive, proactive response to these feelings, we can manage the problem of stress in a way that minimizes its effect on our health and emotional wellbeing. For healthcare workers such as nurses who frequently face life-and-death decisions, using effective coping strategies to deal with stress is crucial.

Self-care is a long-term coping strategy

On any ward, some nurses are coping very well with the rigors of the job. They are ready to take on new challenges and are confident in their abilities. Others are more inclined to feel anxious and unsure about their work, but may keep their feelings hidden and manage them alone. This is unlikely to work in the long run, so finding a solution is the only option.

Neglecting self-care can impact a nurse’s performance

Any nurse can be taught new, more effective approaches to managing stress and practicing self-care. This helps them avoid the problem of rising anxiety levels, which can negatively impact their work and personal lives. Along with getting help from professional sources, nurses can learn to care for themselves. This could involve seeking support from friends and family or making time for the activities they enjoy.

Great self-care can be taught

Self-care can also be discussed with colleagues and other students if a nurse is furthering their education. Indeed, many courses now give students guidance on dealing with stress. This means that they are in a better position to enjoy all the good things about nursing, from the regular salary to paid leave entitlements and the overwhelming sense of satisfaction that comes from helping people in need. Working nurses who are planning a career move can find out more about the potential master of nursing salary and enroll in a Master of Science in Nursing – Family Nurse Practitioner program at Carson-Newman University. This highly affordable course is delivered by experienced practitioners and the clinical placements are local in order to accommodate the student’s existing responsibilities.  

What is self-care?

Self-care is a term that’s often used to describe a set of customs and practices that help a person unwind and reduce their feelings of stress. Neglecting self-care can make work stress harder to cope with, and this can be detrimental in several ways. In healthcare, practitioners can often put their own needs to one side as they are so focused on caring for others, but prioritizing themselves is just as crucial. Done regularly, self-care can help nurses to feel better, in terms of their mental and physical health, and as a result, live a happier, healthier life. Moreover, to be a skilled caregiver, it’s important for nurses to care for themselves because it allows them to work to the best of their ability. Staying in good shape, physically and mentally, gives nurses more resilience so that they can withstand the tough times and also appreciate all the great times.

What are the basics of a good self-care routine?

For nurses who are new to the idea of self-care, maintaining a basic routine can be a useful starting point. The most important things to consider are common sense ideas such as getting enough sleep, resting when possible, having a daily routine to avoid being late, and eating healthily. Staying in touch with family and friends is also key to de-stressing after a busy shift, whether it’s a quick chat on the phone or going out together for the day. Hobbies are useful because they can get people moving, in the case of cycling or gardening, or focus the mind, as writing, puzzles and crafting do. Finally, setting aside time to just switch off can also help a busy nurse to check in with their feelings.

Learning to destress during tense moments

People who are experiencing stress can turn to unhelpful coping mechanisms to get them through the day or week. Instead, it’s better to try out methods such as exercising, spending time outdoors and breathing techniques designed to lower anxiety. When stress starts to rise, finding distractions such as short bursts of exercise, splashing the face with water, watching a comedy show or eating a favorite snack can be useful. Furthermore, it can help you to stay in the moment, because so much of the stress we experience is based on worries about potential future events.

Taking practical steps that promote self-care

The emotional element of self-care is often spoken about, but practical steps are just as important for busy nurses. These aid with staying organized, remaining professional and offering high-quality care. A good place to start is with the kit that’s taken into work every day. Clearing out and cleaning a work bag, and then washing and ironing every set of scrubs, can help you to feel prepared. It also saves time on busy mornings, because everything that’s needed is close to hand.

Setting career goals and establishing a plan to reach them can be highly motivating. It can serve as a motivator on tough days and makes even the most ambitious ideas feel more attainable. Finally, alongside all the hard work and learning of new skills, self-care can also have a frivolous side. Ordering takeaway food as a treat, buying flowers for the home, or making a special smoothie can lift the mood. Rewarding hard work is effective self-care because it creates a link between the nurse’s job and pleasurable experiences.

Long-term methods of managing stress

For nurses, moments of emotional intensity are common. When they understand more about how they are feeling and why they are reacting in certain ways, it can be easier to manage and maintain their performance. Here are some of the best practices for self-care that can be utilized throughout a nurse’s career.

Self-reflective activities 

The best-known self-reflective activity is journaling. Writing down thoughts and feelings is important as it helps nurses to be more aware of what they have experienced during the day. It can also be a useful tool when it comes to naming and therefore identifying emotions and mood shifts. For instance, rather than interpreting a busy ward as chaotic, a nurse could reframe the experience in their journal as a challenge. To enhance feelings of wellness, nurses can also try listing a few achievements, valued people or fun events at regular times during the month. This can also serve as a reminder of things that make a person grateful.  

Setting a prompt can also be useful. These could be sentences such as ‘describe a learning moment from today’ or ‘reflect on the most peaceful part of the day’. This sets the tone for what is to come and fosters more positive energy. Simple activities at home can also clear the mind and allow nurses to focus on their emotions. This could be piecing a puzzle together, reading a book or visiting a museum.

Learning to manage emotions 

Managing emotions is part of self-care because it can help nurses to offer better responses and work well within a team. Everyone has triggers that can send them to a more emotional state of mind, so this skill is not easy to master. Whether a comment or a situation is upsetting, frustrating or frightening, these feelings can emerge quickly and take a person by surprise. As nurses have patients and colleagues who rely on them, finding a way to manage emotions is important.

The first step is awareness – understanding that emotion is rising. This provides a space in which it’s possible to mentally take a step away and settle down. By breathing deeply, and focusing on what can be controlled, the situation can suddenly start to feel more solvable. Emotional control can also play a role in self-compassion, as by refusing to cave in, nurses will gain feelings of relief and also pride.

Being a caring presence on the ward

Nurses who choose to take care of themselves effectively are in a better state of mind when it comes to caring for others. With less stress, they can make room for empathy. This is directed toward patients, of course, but also toward colleagues, because working relationships need to be nurtured. Listening to other people is a good start and being attentive to their concerns provides a caring presence. This helps to strengthen professional relationships between nurses and physicians as well as hospital leaders and managers. This form of self-care might include baking cupcakes for the team, writing a positive message on the break room notice board, praising people for a job well done or simply being kind to others. 

Being self-aware in working relationships

Self-care makes a person more aware of their emotions and the effect they have on others. This can make professional interactions more successful, even if a situation is difficult or complex. There are many challenges in a healthcare environment when it comes to good employee relations. This comes from working with new people for the first time or being part of a care team that includes unfamiliar colleagues. In either position, nurses have to quickly develop positive relationships, perform well and deliver high-quality care.

Part of working well in a team involves empathy, as by tuning in to what others are feeling, nurses can communicate more effectively. Self-aware nurses allow for displays of emotion because they recognize what the other nurse or physician is going through. It helps them to assume the best in people and establish connections that, in time, could prove to be useful sources of support. Simple conversational acts, such as asking someone if they are okay, or inquiring about their day, can encourage people to open up. In a wider context, nurses can promote self-care among colleagues by buying quality coffee and healthy snacks for the breakroom, or making a point of celebrating birthdays and other events.

Build patience into the working day

Nurses know that their vocal tone, body language and expressions offer comfort and reassurance to patients. However, the same is true of their colleagues. When a healthcare worker is managing their feelings through self-care, they are calm enough to use patience and gentle humor in all of their interactions. Tension can quickly grow, so in order to make the team more effective, nurses can ease this by suggesting that everyone takes a break before making a key decision. De-escalation techniques often begin with self-care. The practitioner is more capable of showing patience because they recognize that their team is stressed and understand that emotion is affecting their performance. By creating a pause in the conversation, they ensure that each clinician is refocused on the task and the patient receives optimal care outcomes.

What resources are available for nurses who want to improve their self-care routine? 

Self-care, according to the World Health Organization, involves “individuals as active agents in managing their own health care”. This means that nurses should seek out the tools and resources they need to support their self-care endeavors.

Explore apps designed for self-care

Apps offer an easy, fast and accessible way for nurses to refresh their headspace and tackle feelings of anxiety. Many use notifications to remind users of when it’s time to perform a certain activity or take a break. They can also be useful when there is a specific issue that a nurse wants to tackle, such as trouble sleeping, the need to relax or staying motivated. The best apps for individual nurses will depend on their personal preferences, but those that deal with meeting self-care goals and maintaining a positive state of mind are the most beneficial.

Calm has been going for a while and is a great all-rounder. It offers help with stress, sleep quality, remaining focused and more. For nurses who are planning to incorporate meditation into their daily schedule, Headspace could be a better idea. This app uses voice-guided meditations to nurture feelings of contentment and deep relaxation. If nurses lack motivation and would benefit from some words of encouragement, then Fabulous could be a good place to start. This app works like a coach, inspiring the user to develop healthy routines in terms of eating, sleeping and exercising. It also has a community of users who are ready to chat and act as cheerleaders for each other’s efforts.

Join a professional nursing organization

There are several excellent nursing organizations in the US, all of which recognize the pressure that nurses and other health professionals are under. Joining these or simply reading the articles and blogs on pages such as the American Nurses Association can help nurses feel supported. On other sites, there are practical ideas for self-care and information on why it is a critical aspect of good nursing. Nursing World has excellent resources on self-care that include how-to guides and short online courses that offer tips on clearing the mind and feeling healthier.

Learn more about mindfulness

Mindfulness is another technique that many health professionals use to manage stress and appreciate the good things around them. It involves paying attention to the moment, and considering the feelings that are happening now, rather than worrying about what is next. It’s also useful when it comes to untangling complex feelings of anxiety, as it gives an individual the space to stand back and take more control over their thoughts. As patterns of stress or anxiety begin to emerge, it is easier to recognize them in the future and prevent them from taking hold. Nurses who want to learn more about the practice of mindfulness can read more on the National Institutes of Health website. 

Find simple and effective ways of eating healthily

Nurses frequently have to eat on the go or prepare meals in a hurry. For people who are not great at cooking or have little experience in meal planning, it can be a struggle to eat the right snacks and meals that are nutritional. To keep people informed and offer advice, the government has created a number of resources. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans include ideas for keeping fit and eating a balanced diet.

Become part of the Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation event

This national challenge is open to all nurses. It aims to encourage health professionals to keep up their physical fitness levels, get the right nutrition and rest fully. Participants in the Healthy Nurse Healthy Nation Challenge are also given ideas for improving their quality of life, prioritizing their mental health and keeping themselves safe.

Take self-care classes

Some healthcare employers offer self-care classes and this is being supported by the government’s new Health Worker Mental Health Initiative. Joining in with classes, discussions and other forms of workplace support can be a great way of destressing. It ensures that nurses are given expert advice in a caring environment and offers the opportunity for people to connect with coworkers who are also focusing on self-care so that they are more able to support one another. 


If you are a working nurse and are considering furthering your education, why not consider enrolling on a Master of Science in Nursing – Family Nurse Practitioner program?


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