Coping Strategies for Nurses: How to Manage Ongoing Stress During COVID-19
By Jennifer Larson, contributor
Who’s feeling a little stressed out these days?
Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of nurses and other
healthcare professionals are feeling the strain. Some are feeling stressed from
months of intense work in a high-pressure, life-and-death environment. Some are
feeling anxious from months of job insecurity, as some hospitals and health
systems have struggled to retain staff due to revenue losses.
And everyone’s feeling the strain of living through an unprecedented
experience like a global pandemic.
In fact, it’s normal to have reactions like stress, anxiety or even
grief to what the American Psychiatric Nurses Association describes as “increased
and persistent stressors and potential trauma.” That’s why mental health
experts are advocating for nurses to develop coping strategies sooner rather
“If you ignore the stresses of this pandemic with the delusional hope
that it will somehow end and life will go back to normal, you are on the road
to burnout, occupational trauma, an increased risk of physical illness and
pain,” said Jennifer Love, MD, psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist
with The Amen Clinics and author of the upcoming book When Crisis Strikes.
“Developing a few good stress management techniques is essential to
improving your qualify of life, both at work and at play,” she noted.
perspective with a travel nursing job from Onward Healthcare.
Recognize your stress
So how does a nurse manage ongoing stress in the midst of COVID-19? First,
learn to recognize the signs of stress in yourself. Stress can manifest in
different ways in different people, but there are some common signs that you
might want to watch for.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists these
signs of stress in healthcare workers as potential red flags:
- Irritation, anger or denial
- Feelings of anxiety or uncertainty
- Lack of motivation
- Feeling burned out
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble focusing or concentrating
Monitor yourself regularly to see if you’re experiencing any of these
signs, and if they’re getting worse. Don’t brush them off.
Give yourself permission to
prioritize your needs
Karrie Brazaski, RN, BSN, MS, CTNC, founder of a nonprofit called
Helping Healthcare Heroes, emphasizes that unaddressed stress can lead to
burnout. Burnout is already a well-documented problem for nurses, even before
the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Nurses are all about taking care of everyone else. They need to start
making self-care a priority for themselves,” she said. “The first step is
changing the mindset that taking care of yourself is selfish; it is not. It is imperative
for longevity in this career.”
Start by assessing yourself with the acronym known as HALT. Are you:
- Lonely or
If you are, address those concerns first, said Tonya Hansel, PhD, associate
professor of social work at Tulane University whose expertise is in disaster
Then you can work on developing some more long-term coping strategies
Determine stress management
strategies that will work for you
It’s important to find coping strategies that work for you. And what
works for you may be different than what works for someone else, noted Brazaski.
Start by trying out any of the stress management practices that have worked
for you in the past, suggested Hansel.
“If they have been helpful in the past, they are likely to work again,”
Embracing self-care measures can go a long way toward helping you
manage ongoing stress, even during COVID-19. You can start with what Hansel
calls “small acts of relaxation, such as deep breathing, a short walk,
meditation, prayer, or calling a friend.”
nurses need to be especially vigilant about self-care when they’re away
from home because they are separated from their usual support networks. Travelers
may need to try some different methods, but can find ways to mitigate stress
when on the road.
If you’re traveling, make an effort to stay connected to friends and
family daily, whether using social media and video sharing apps or a simple
phone call. And find ways to incorporate some exercise into your day.
It’s also important to stick with coping strategies that actually help
you, said Divya Kannan, PhD, lead psychologist with Cure.fit.
“Active coping strategies are more effective than passive ones,” says
Kannan. “Examples of passive coping may be excessive sleeping, relying on food
or alcohol to feel better, or avoid confronting things that may be bothering
you. These behaviors may help us feel some relief for a temporary period of
time, e.g. dealing with sadness through binge eating, but don’t allow us to
directly deal with the problem at hand if we rely on them as a primary means of
Accept the unknown and ask for help
One of the hardest parts of the current situation is the unknown
factor. Not knowing when the COVID-19 pandemic will end can definitely
exacerbate your stress levels.
“Once you start relaxing, release your expectations and accept the
reality that we just don’t know how long this pandemic will be around,” said
Love. “Avoid setting an end date in your mind…think about how to live with it and
to live well.”
Even with your best efforts, you may not be able to fully manage your
stress all by yourself. There is no shame in asking for help. You can contact
your employer’s employee assistance program (EAP) for help, or you may want to
seek out a counselor to discuss your issues.
If you are a traveler working for Onward Healthcare, contact your
recruiter to learn more about the company’s wellness program, which includes a
mental health component.
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Nurse Stress Management Techniques That Work
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