Nursing can be a very stressful profession. We often deal with people in the worst situations they have ever experienced! We work holidays and weekends, and have all the politics of an ever-evolving healthcare system. We deal with emergency situations, death, and dying. Our guest post today is by Elizabeth Scala, an established author who strives to help nurses everywhere. So her question for all of us is, "Is All Stress Created Equal?"

Is All Stress Created Equal?

By Elizabeth Scala, MSN/MBA, RN

According to the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, stress is defined an organism's total response to environmental demands or pressures. While stress has been studied for decades, researchers continue to question whether stress is a response to an external response, an internal perception, or some combination of both.

As nurses, particularly employed in fast-paced, intense work environments we can probably name many of the most stressful things about our jobs.

  • We experience emotional stress as we witness patients and their families during the death and dying process. We may feel sad or even helpless, as our efforts to improve the patient’s condition become futile.
  • Workplace politics can certainly be stressful. As a nurse, we have to navigate scheduling systems, charting and documentation policies, and safety/quality audits. As we complete one document, another seems to come right behind it.
  • Finally, think about nursing itself! We interact with all sorts of patients on a daily basis. Extremely ill patients, unique patients from diverse cultures, patients of all ages. Taking care of a critically ill person as their health starts to tank can be extremely tense and cause feelings of overwhelm or exhaustion.

Now, let’s preface what we can do about stress, with a disclaimer. Not all stress is created equal. A nurse who works in the emergency department of an academic medical center, may enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from a busy shift. Reading the three bullets above, this particular nurse may not find the third point as stressful at all. On the other hand, a nurse who prefers working as a hospice nurse in the community, may find certain characteristics of the death and dying process as intimate, relational, and full of peace.

Each person handles and processes stress in different ways, unique to them. Add to that the fact that there is actually ‘good stress’ out there (that’s right… something called eustress can actually inspire you to get tasks done or actually improve brain function) - we need to approach the ways we cope with or handle stress, with caution.

Here are three steps you can take to decrease stress and take better care of yourself.

1.  Start with Awareness. Is the stress you are experiencing good or bad? Would you say that it inspires you to change (good stress) or is holding you back from moving forward (bad stress)? Also ask yourself, ‘Where is the stress coming from? Is it something within my control, which I can change? Or is it out of my hands, making it more likely I’ll have to learn to deal with it?’ Beginning with total awareness of your stress and how it’s affecting you will make it easier for you to act.

2.  Learn to Let Go. Once you have the awareness of your stressors, you have options. If there are things in your life or your career that are not supporting you, you can choose to make a change. Let’s take an example here, to illustrate this point. Say a colleague of yours has been coming in late every shift. As a charge nurse, this not only irritates you but is against unit policy. You keep writing this person up, but nothing seems to change. You’re at your wits end and are so mad about the situation- you feel like you could explode. How can you let go in this instance? Here- I would start off with a discussion with my supervisor or manager. Articulate what you are observing and share how it makes you feel. Only state the facts and ask what can be done about this. Your supervisor may respond with something like ‘The wheels are in motion; continue to document what you notice.’ While this may not be the response you had hoped for, it is one. And now- since you cannot change another human being’s behavior (this nurse who is constantly late) - you can choose to continue to let it bother you. Or you can choose to let it go. It’s your choice, but I can tell you from experience… one option will certainly decrease your stress load.

3.  Focus on the Strengths. Now that you have released some of the negative energy (these could be thoughts, feelings, or actions) that is causing you stress you have made room. It’s as if there is space inside that is free and open. Here, I would recommend filling up with the good stuff. OK- so let’s go back to the example above. Let’s just say you decided to let go of the attention you are giving to this chronically late colleague. While you continue to do the right thing as a charge nurse (write up the tardiness each and every time), you have decided to let go of the feelings associated with this behavior. Now that you’ve let these go, you have made room for other things to focus on. And what can you fill up with here? Focus on the good stuff! Notice that all of your other co-workers are actually IN shift report, on time, as they should be. Notice that you have a full staff to work with today. Notice that it is sunny outside and you have your health. Focus on the good and you will enjoy receiving more of it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What stresses in your life are good versus bad? How do you cope with the ones that are viewed as negative? What strategies have you tried as a busy nurse to handle stress? Leave a comment below or Tweet me @ElizabethScala to share your thoughts.

About the Author: As a keynote speaker, bestselling author and virtual conference host, Elizabeth partners with hospitals, organizations, associations, and nursing groups to help transform the field of nursing from the inside out. During the National Nurse's Week online conference, 'The Art of Nursing', Elizabeth supports nurses in achieving professional goals of continued learning and development. Click here to find out more about how The Art of Nursing appreciates and celebrates our profession in a meaningful way.

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AuthorCourtney Tracy