How to Maintain Mental Health as a Nurse

May 29, 2023
Janelle Thomas MSN, RN
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Nursing can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling careers anyone can choose, but it’s no secret that nursing can also come with high levels of stress and the potential for burnout. While nursing can be a great way to make a living and genuinely help people dealing with difficult health issues, any nurse will tell you about the long hours in very demanding environments that come with it. Nurses today are dealing with ongoing staff shortages, new health challenges, safety risks, and many other issues that can contribute to mental problems as a nurse.

While there is only so much you can do to control your work environment and the patients you are helping, being proactive about your mental health can positively impact your job satisfaction, career trajectory, and overall well-being. This guide will help current or prospective nurses learn practical and straightforward tips for maintaining mental health.

Top 10 Tips to Maintain Your Mental Health: Nursing Edition

There is no one magic step anyone can take to improve their mental health. Effective mental health strategies require a mix of basic healthy life decisions, surrounding yourself with positive and fulfilling people, understanding yourself and your triggers, and taking deliberate, focused action.

Because everyone is different, no two plans for mental health are the same, but here are some common tips that can help most nurses on the road to mental health maintenance:

1. Get Plenty of Sleep and Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Sleep has a major impact on mental health, but the long and stressful hours of a nurse’s schedule can get in the way of a good night’s sleep. This can create a vicious cycle where lack of sleep adds to mental fatigue and job performance, which in turn increases stress and anxiety at night when it’s time to go to sleep.

By prioritizing a solid night of sleep, ideally eight hours, and taking active steps to get your mind and body ready for sleep, you can sleep better at night and be more rested and focused during the day. Tips for good sleep hygiene include:

  • Taking a warm shower to relax your body at night
  • Avoiding caffeine and sugar before bed
  • Lowering the lights and turning off screens an hour before bedtime
  • Listening to relaxing music or reading a calming book
  • Sleeping in a dark room and taking deep breaths to fall asleep

2. Stay Hydrated

While this may seem basic, your brain needs water to function properly. Being dehydrated can cause headaches, mental fatigue, and contribute to stress. There is even evidence it can contribute to mental health problems. Nurses can stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water before and after shifts and periodically drinking water throughout the day.

3. Eat Healthily

Food is fuel, and your body needs good, clean energy to get through a day of nursing. This is just as true of your brain as the rest of the body. After a good night’s sleep, the next most important step any nurse can take to prepare for the day is to eat a balanced and nutritious breakfast. While lunch breaks aren’t always a reality, even if they should be, prepare some quick and healthy snacks you can eat on the go to get you through a shift.

4. Keep Your Body Strong and Energetic With Exercise

The average nurse walks anywhere from three to five miles in an average shift and is often required to lift heavy patients and equipment to accomplish basic tasks. While this may seem like enough physical activity, supplementing this with targeted exercises can positively impact mental health. For example:

  • Yoga can keep your body flexible and calm the mind
  • High-impact aerobics, like a spin class, can release endorphins and improve cardiovascular health
  • Taking a walk outside can improve mood and help you get vitamin D from sunlight
  • Targeted strength training can improve core stability and lower your risk of injury

5. Meditate

Practicing mindfulness meditation for 20 minutes daily is a great way to maintain your mental health. Deep breathing and focus on your body and surroundings promotes calmness and helps you identify and respond to negative thoughts in a healthy way.

6. Balance Your Life for You-Time and Fulfilling Activities

Stress and burnout can lead to a spiral that unbalances your home life. Like lack of sleep, being unhappy at work can spill over into your personal life, feeding back into your work, and so on. Take control of this cycle by setting aside and guarding time in your life for some self-care activities that are genuinely fulfilling and improve your state of mind. This can include listening to music, reading a book, or devoting time to a hobby or craft.

7. Get Support From Family and Friends

Another critical aspect of mental health is a strong social support network. Having people you can do fun things with, share a meal with, or talk things over with can make a positive difference in your mental well-being. It can help ground you and make problems feel smaller.

As a nurse, it’s important to make sure you are maintaining strong relationships with the people you care about and who will help you feel supported through good times and difficult times.

8. Get Help if You Need It

If you feel like mental health problems, including stress, anxiety, and depression, are getting the better of you, never feel like you just have to power your way through. As caregivers, nurses can be particularly prone to thinking they are too strong to need help. Whether you seek help from a doctor, a psychologist, or a therapist, getting professional mental health support before problems become too much to manage is critical to staying healthy and happy as a nurse.

9. Take Steps to Succeed at Work

While the places nurses work, especially hospitals and nursing homes, are notoriously chaotic, there are steps you can take to be a better nurse, even in high-stress situations. This includes:

  • Staying organized by taking notes, paying attention to updates, and listening during shift changes and huddles
  • Taking patient-centered care, therapeutic communication, and patient advocacy seriously, and always keeping the focus on the people you’re helping
  • Taking advantage of opportunities for training and education offered by your employer that can help you do your job better and more efficiently
  • Keeping a positive attitude and focusing on achievable goals each day

10. Find Your Niche

Don’t be afraid to make a change if you find that a work environment is not sustainable for your mental health, whether due to workload, hours, safety, or management. Many nursing opportunities offer a wide range of schedules, supportive cultures, good work-life balance, and growth opportunities.

For nurses who value direct patient care, flexible hours, and independent decision-making, home health care is a growing field that can offer nurses flexibility and a more satisfying work-life balance.

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