Self-care for Nurses: 6 Strategies to Maintain Your Mental Health
Nurses understand the need for self-care, but may need encouragement and tools to prioritize their mental well-being.
By Jennifer Larson, contributor
Think about your approach to maintaining your mental health. Do you have one? Or has your mental health, perhaps along with your physical health, dropped far down the list of priorities?
“In my experience, nurses are very slow and sometimes even reluctant to attend to their own mental health needs,” said psychologist James Jackson, PsyD, director of long-term outcomes for the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
Nurses are so centered on others—and so highly adept at caring for others—that they often don’t even have a framework for caring for themselves. This type of self-neglect can be dangerous, though. Self-care for nurses is so important that the American Nurses Association has once again devoted an entire week, May 1-9, to focusing on it during Nurses Month in 2021.
So, if you are starting to feel the effects of neglecting your own needs in the name of caring for others, consider this a wake-up call.
6 self-care strategies for nurses to support their mental health
1. Understand that it’s okay to prioritize yourself
It is so easy to put yourself last. In fact, many nurses do. It’s also easy to bristle when someone tells you that you need to prioritize your mental health.
“When you have reached your limit and are feeling overwhelmed, you will not appreciate someone telling you to do more--or what sounds like more,” said Nancy Brook, MSN, RN, CFNP, a nurse practitioner and career mentor. “In some respects, ‘self-care’ has become a catch phrase for massages and manicures and doing more than you are already doing.”
But real self-care really can make a difference. You can improve your own health, and it can help you be a better nurse.
“Taking care of yourself needs to start with prevention: prioritizing your own well-being, setting boundaries, sleeping, eating well and just feeling connected with friends, colleagues or family,” said Brook.
2. Accept yourself and forgive yourself
Often, we are harder on ourselves than anyone else is.
“We would never know it just by looking at nurses, but their inner critic is often running rampant,” said Brittain. “Rumination over small mistakes, frequent comparisons to others, unresolved anger or grief and toxic workplace environments all contribute to negative self-talk and self-shaming.”
Give yourself permission to accept difficult experiences for what they’ve helped you learn, and move forward.
3. Embrace mindfulness
You may have heard of mindfulness, and even tried some mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. But if you’re not using them regularly, you are missing out on the benefits for your mental wellness.
“Nursing is a high-stress profession that may be taking a toll on our nurses,” wrote Sue Penque, PhD, RN, ANP-BC, NC-BC, NE-BC, in a 2019 article in Nursing Management. “Mindfulness-based programs can help nurses develop skills to manage clinical stress and improve their health; increase overall attention, empathy, and presence with patients and families; and experience work satisfaction, serenity, decreased incidental overtime, and reduced job burnout.”
Mindfulness exercises don’t take much time, and you can practice them just about anywhere. Start by sitting quietly and taking four or five long, slow, deep breaths and paying close attention to how you feel while you inhale and exhale.
4. Try other kinds of self-care
What works for your nursing colleague may not work for you. So it is important to find one or more methods of self-care that work for you and help you feel calmer and more resilient. As a 2016 article titled “Self-Healing and Self-Care for Nurses” in the AORN Journal noted, you should experiment until you find a combination that works for you.
A few possibilities:
- Exercise. A solitary run, swimming some laps, a bike ride, or a yoga class: whatever helps you unwind and dials down your stress levels is worth your while. Of course, exercise is good for your body, too.
- Journaling. Sit with a blank piece of paper (or a blank note on your phone) and then write down whatever comes to mind. “Brain-dump any conscious thought that comes to mind,” suggested Heather Brittain, MSN, RN, a pediatric nurse and holistic wellness coach. “It doesn’t need to be pretty, legible, and it doesn’t even have to be words if they feel hard to express. Simply notice what comes to mind and release.”
- Connect. Are you feeling isolated from your loved ones? Research has found that having strong social ties enhances your health and well-being. Time to reach out and re-establish some of those connections, whether you are a travel nurse on assignment or have simply missed one-on-one connections due to the pandemic
5. Be vigilant to stop harmful behaviors
Experts caution that some people adopt coping strategies that can be harmful to their health.
For example, research indicates that many people began drinking more alcohol--or drinking alcohol more frequently--as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded in 2020. And some eating disorder treatment centers logged an uptick in healthcare providers seeking treatment.
“Nurses and others in care professions must pay attention to their own needs, mentally and physically, the way they would for a patient,” said Krista Hovde, RN, nurse manager at the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders and Severe Malnutrition at Denver Health. “There are many options for support and treatment, which tend to be more successful when eating disorders are addressed early.”
Indeed, it’s important to be aware of any behaviors that might actually undermine your attempt to get and stay healthy.
6. Consider professional help
A trained mental health professional can help you assess your mental health status and chart a course forward. Counseling sessions, anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications, group therapy, online support groups…there are numerous options for people who may be struggling with mental health issues.
“I have personally hopped around from counselors to licensed psychiatrists and currently have been seeing a life coach for two years,” said Haleigh Sullivan, BSN, RN, a nurse in Los Angeles.
You could also contact the employee assistance program, or EAP, at your place of employment or travel nursing agency for a confidential consult, said Jackson.
“Let the EAP tell you whether your issues are concerning or not,” he said. “Don’t conclude on your own that they’re not because they might be. Let a professional tell you.”
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