June 2, 2023
Nurses are among the most selfless and caring professionals. So much so that 70% of nurses report putting their patients’ health above their own. That’s because many nurses go into the field with a strong desire to help people. But, long work hours, large numbers of patients, and a lack of resources can leave even the most caring and motivated nurse feeling overwhelmed and burnt out.
That’s why self-care is so important. Taking care of your mind and body as a nurse can mean the difference between a long, successful career and burning out early. This guide is here to help you learn more about self-care and some of the practical ways you can make it a part of your life.
What is self-care?
While self-care can mean different things to different people, it generally means establishing and maintaining your health to prevent and deal with stress, fatigue, and mental or physical illness. This will usually involve a combination of hygiene, nutrition, lifestyle, environmental factors, as well as social and economic factors.
Since everyone is different, an effective self-care routine will mean finding the right balance of these elements that is right for you.
The Importance of Self-Care for Nurses
There’s a saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” For nurses, it means if you give too much to your patients to the point of feeling empty, you won’t be able to give energy to the other things that matter — such as your family, hobbies, or friends. This in turn will give you less energy when you come back to work, ultimately diminishing your ability to help people.
Not only that, but neglecting self-care can lead to unwanted, unhealthy lifestyles. It can also lead to depression, lack of concentration, and apathy. This is particularly dangerous for nurses because it can result in safety issues, including patient falls, medication errors, and lower quality of care scores.
Over time, stress contributes to chronic disease. Stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, can build up in the bloodstream and lead to a host of health issues. Hyperglycemia, hyperinsulinemia, arteriosclerosis, hypertension, and a decrease in immune system function are just a few examples.
That’s why self-care is so important to reducing risks both for the nurse and their patients.
10 Self-Care Activities & Ideas for Nurses
What can you do to successfully integrate self-care into your life? Here are 10 examples of practical ideas and activities that work for many nurses:
1. Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is a tool for managing stress and fostering health by being mindful of your surroundings, feelings, and thoughts. To practice, find a quiet, comfortable place to sit and focus on your breathing, external surroundings, and emotional energy. By taking 10 – 20 minutes per day to practice mindfulness, you’ll reduce stress and ease any anxiety you’re feeling. Other benefits include:
- Reorienting your perspective
- Creating self-awareness
- Gaining focus on the present
- Reducing negative emotions
- Increasing patience and creativity
2. Get a Massage
The stress of being a nurse can find its way into nearly every corner of your body. Getting a massage can help you relax, but it can also have other physical benefits as well. There’s a reason why therapeutic massage is part of many physical therapy and rehab programs.
A qualified massage therapist knows how to release tension in muscles, break up bundles of hardened tissue, and improve blood flow. The result is a more relaxed, functioning body and a calmer, focused mind. Just remember to drink plenty of water after!
3. Stay Active
Exercising promotes endorphin production. Endorphins are natural painkillers and help promote sleep. They can also improve your mood and boost confidence. While exercise is most effective when done regularly, it doesn’t have to be intense or for long periods of time. Participating in moderate exercise for just 30 minutes per day will provide benefits. Some exercises to try include:
- Riding a stationary bike
- Taking a short walk after dinner
- Following a Yoga YouTube video
4. Practice Good Sleep Habits
It’s recommended that adults get about eight hours of sleep each night. However, most nurses sleep an hour and a half less. Too many sleepless nights can cause sleep deprivation, which hurts your ability to focus and handle tasks effectively. Not only does this impact your day-to-day performance, but it also impacts your long-term health and cognition.
The quality of your sleep can also impact how rested you feel. If you work night shifts, installing blackout curtains can help darken your room and make it easier to fall asleep. Other tips for improving your quality of sleep include:
- Limiting screen time before bed
- Reducing consumption of alcohol or caffeine before bed
- Sleep on a comfortable mattress that offers support for your sleeping position
- Use pillows that support your neck
- Create a bedtime routine and stick to it
5. Read a Book
Besides affecting your sleep quality, too much screen time can also impact mental health during the day. Instead of the barrage of social media and streaming programs, turn off the screen and read a book. Not only can it help you escape and unwind after a busy day, but reading the right book can expand your horizons and help you learn.
While the first thing you think of may be a traditional paperback, audiobooks, and even ebooks can be just as effective while helping you take care of yourself on your commute or during a quick break.
6. Spend Time With Friends and Loved Ones
It can be difficult to align your schedule with that of your friends and family, especially if you’re working night shifts. Making time for phone calls, grabbing food, and spending time together can make all the difference for your social and mental health. Not only does maintaining connections to friends and family help you find a balance between your personal and professional lives, but it also enhances your relationships. Some ideas include:
- Inviting a friend to lunch
- Doing an escape room with your family
- Going to a park with your children
- Planning a date
7. Focus on Your Nutrition
Food is fuel, and for nurses, eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet can give you the energy you need to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Tips for eating healthy include:
- Get plenty of lean protein, such as chicken, fish, and soy
- Eat fruits and veggies that are packed with vitamins and minerals, including kale, blueberries, avocados, spinach, and carrots
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water
- Stick to whole grains, such as brown rice, and avoid processed grains such as white bread as much as possible
- Except for treats, stay away from foods and drinks that are high in refined sugars
8. Use Positive Self-Talk, Journaling, and Music to Optimize Mental Health
Self-care should definitely include taking care of your mind just as much as your body. In addition to established mental health practices, including therapy and psychiatry, there are a wide range of effective self-care activities you can do to foster a positive mindset.
- One of the simplest things you can do is just say nice things to yourself. It’s as easy as “I got this,” “I can do this,” or “I can do anything I set my mind to.” Repeating positive phrases over and over again can help you internalize a positive mindset.
- Writing down and reflecting on your daily events in a journal can help you process and analyze both positive and stressful occurrences so you can adapt and reinforce healthy attitudes.
- Whether it’s listening to a high-energy playlist on the way to work to get you motivated or playing something relaxing to unwind, music can have a powerful impact on your state of mind.
9. Go Outside
Going outside often goes hand-in-hand with exercise, but getting outside is beneficial enough to merit its own entry. Studies have found that seeing nature can help reduce stress and promote relaxation. What’s more, sunlight can increase the production of vitamin D, which has a number of health benefits, including stronger bones and a more robust immune system.
Whether you are going outside for a walk or hike, or just soaking up the sun, the great outdoors should be a core part of your self-care routine.
10. Take Time for Yourself
Perhaps most importantly, remember to take time for yourself. Whether it’s spending time practicing a hobby, cooking your favorite food, or treating yourself to a spa day, taking time to do things for yourself can make caring for others easier. Try to schedule breaks in your day to take a short walk, or if your workday is too busy, use your time off to recharge and focus on yourself and the things you love. If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, consider talking to a professional such as a therapist. Or consider looking for a position that is less stressful but still allows you to help people. Common nursing positions that generally have a less stressful pace than hospitals or care facilities include:
- Home health care
- School nursing
- Consultation services
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