Nurses: Surviving not Thriving


The biggest challenges & some techniques to improve mental health

We celebrated nurses this month, during National Nurses Week and I wanted to take this opportunity to share a story from my colleague, Caroline, a fellow therapist, who has a deeply personal message to share. Please pass this along to the nurses you know and love.


~ Laura



I come from a family of nurses including my mother, sister, husband, aunts and first cousins. In fact, I am one of a few in my extended family who chose a profession outside of nursing. I feel privileged to be connected to so many men and women in my personal and professional life who chose the profession of nursing and value so much of what they’ve done to get there, and currently what they have to do to manage all that has come down on the profession of nursing in recent years.

I believe that those who have chosen nursing have important qualities including a caring heart, an interested mind, and a work ethic which goes beyond their scope of practice at times. Nursing school is no joke, and having been through this experience with my partner, my respect for nurses has grown even deeper.

What are the biggest challenges for nurses and their mental health at this distinct time in our world? After speaking to those closest to me and understanding the stories of many others, I have come up with a list of what I believe to be most stressful:

Staffing Hospital nurses especially are dealing with the overwhelm that accompanies understaffing. As Brene Brown says, overwhelm is when there is little to no functioning left in a present moment and the stress has rolled in like a bull in a china shop to hit a person already maxed out of emotions. Being understaffed means having less help, missing lunches and breaks, and feeling hopeless that this issue will improve.

Patient care With staffing shortages comes the brutal outcome of patients not getting the care they need, not because the nurses on staff aren’t doing their jobs, but because of the number of nursing positions available, lack of patient care attendants available, and staff burnout from stress and fatigue.

Guilt This emotion is connected to behavior, meaning one feels guilty for something they did or failed to do. In nursing at this time in the world there are many feelings of guilt for not doing more (not because you didn’t but because you couldn’t), and for not picking up an overtime shift when you know your floor is understaffed but also because you are too damn tired to do it, again, outside of your scheduled hours. This is not guilt that you own, but is guilt that you carry because you care so much for the people you work with, the people you care, and because you chose a profession that you thought would allow you more time with your patients.

With all the stress, physical and emotional overwhelm that nurses face it is important that nurses take the time to care for themselves. Mental health in nursing has been a topic of discussion during therapy sessions and recently in the media, but isn’t necessarily explored in school nor is it encouraged by management, who send constant texts and calls about picking up extra shifts. Here are some important self-care techniques to consider for nurses during this difficult time: Physical activity Moving our bodies produces endorphins which can reduce the perception of pain and trigger a positive feeling in the body similar to that of morphine. When we exercise, we have an opportunity to clear our minds, to boost our moods and maybe even listen to a podcast or audiobook that we have been putting off. Healthy nutrition Studies have found that healthy diets can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, can boost one’s mood and prevent fatigue. For nurses who often work two days, two nights and five off (understanding that the first day off is not really a day off) packing a healthy lunch for the 12-hour shifts can improve your well-being. Making time to meal prep can be challenging and time consuming, but just might be the change that helps you through the difficult day shifts that are so often too busy to even take a full lunch.

Sleep Hygiene Forbes.com recently released a study confirming that over half of nurses had problems sleeping during the first 6 months of the pandemic, with over 25% of nurses struggling with anxiety and over 50% of nurses struggling with depression. These numbers are extraordinary and cannot go unnoticed. Sleep hygiene for shift workers is difficult. Sleep consistency is recommended by the sleep foundation, including regular naps, sleeping the same time every night (when on your off time) limiting screen time before bed, creating an environment which supports sleep including a darkened room and white noise.

Self-care in other forms Do you like to go to lunch with friends? Spend time with family? Go hiking? Hit up the local spa? Whatever the case might be, self-care is whatever makes YOU feel good and rejuvenates all that work can sometimes deplete us of. The difficulty with nursing at this time in the world is that nurses are surviving not thriving. Days off and vacation time can’t come soon enough and burnout and stress-leave seem close on the horizon. Keeping in mind that self-care means being selfish so that you can be the best nurse to the patients you care for, my message to all you wonderful nurses is to BE SELFISH. We need you, we support you, we see you!

~ Caroline, Clinical Therapist


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