Under stress and overwhelmed

Don’t Overdo Overtime

“Nurses are trying to put in as many extra hours as they can, especially in this troubled economy when spouses may be laid off,” says VHA chief nursing officer Gelinas. “Sometimes you don’t recognize how emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausted you are.”

To cut down on errors, the health care industry is starting to respond to the issue of restricting the number of hours that workers can put in at a given period of time (as the aviation and trucking industries have already done). If you’re working overtime, ask yourself if you can really handle the extra time without compromising your health and that of your patients. On the other hand, if overtime is expected, it’s appropriate to talk with your supervisor about cutting down.

Take a Break (or Two)

Sometimes Nurse Roundtree wishes she were a smoker. Well, not literally, but the nurses who smoke at her hospital seem to be the only ones who take breaks. “I don’t think I’ve ever taken a 15-minute break,” says Roundtree, who works three 12-hour nights a week so she can be with her two small children during the day.

One reason many nurses don’t take breaks may be a prevailing group mindset that they’re not really necessary. “You really have to be your own advocate and insist that it’s legitimate to go outside and take a few deep breaths,” says stress-expert Edwards. “If stretching your calves or closing your eyes for 30 seconds while you’re standing at the nurses station helps you relax, do it. Even one long inhale and exhale before you walk through the door to see your next patient will provide a little mental relief and help you recharge.” The point is, steal time to do what works for you—maybe that means saying a short prayer to yourself or meditating for a minute.

Don’t forget that exercise can be a great stress reliever. Richard Sherman, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Tarzana, Calif., says, “If you can manage it, spend 20 or 30 minutes in the gym after work—it can not only help you wind down, but also transition into your own time.”

Live in the Moment  

In many ways, you probably do live in the moment—the immediacy of medicine demands it. But it’s only human to sometimes get caught up in looking forward or backward, and that can be a significant source of stress. “If you’re looking too far ahead professionally, for example, to your next career goal, and are unable to envision the steps that will get you there, it’s easy to experience a sense of powerlessness,” says Susan Gayle, founder of the New Behavior Institute in New York City. Conversely, if ruminating on past disappointments—the argument you just had with your spouse, or the patient who unexpectedly took a turn for the worse—you’re setting yourself up for anxiety. “Letting go of stress really means making a conscious decision to pivot your thoughts away from what’s stressing you out.”

Ready, Set…Change

Sometimes all the coping strategies in the world won’t help if you feel trapped—and then you may need to make a big change. Take Siobhan Frost. She worked at a surgery center in Santa Barbara, Calif., and found it stressful in the extreme to keep the demands straight for 13 different doctors, each of whom had very specific preferences. Finally, she left her job, taking 12 years off to raise her kids, and then learned that she had cancer. She decided to rejoin the workforce, waiting until a position opened up in the oncology department, where the atmosphere was less harried than in the surgical center. Part of caring for herself was switching to oncology (the other part was exercising regularly.) “Somebody once told me, ‘Don’t wait for a job you want to appear in the want ads.’ So I figured out where I wanted to work, sent my resume and kept calling so they wouldn’t forget about me,” says Frost.

Remember Wendy Dougherty, the stressed-out neonatal charge nurse? She decided to take her family to visit the NICU where she works, so they could see firsthand the high-tech machines she has to use as well as the fragility of the preemies she cares for. The experience helped her family better understand that she can’t always just clock out, go home and fall right into the groove. “Your family needs to realize that it takes time to wind down and let go of the environment you’ve been in for 12 hours or more.”

Nurse Dougherty has also found that talking about her day with her husband is a big stress-reliever. It has also made him take better care of the caregiver. “Now when I call to tell him I’m on my way home, he often says, ‘I have the bath running and dinner is ready.’”

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