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If you're desperate to unwind after work you're probably making this common mistake.

How do you feel when you get home from work? Overwhelmed? Searching for some relief from the day you just had?

“I just need to unwind, I can’t do ONE MORE THING!”

The best solution at the time seems to be to spend an evening with Netflix and a bottle of wine (if you’re lucky). Or, if you push yourself and manage to get the laundry done, the exhaustion is tempered by a package of cookies. Then, at the end of the night, you are 1000 calories (or 8 Netflix hours) further away from your goals and not really recovered from your stressful work day.

You are not alone.

There is a common mistake here, one that many of us make every single day;

the mistake of trying to fix the symptom instead of the cause.

And no, I am not telling you to quit your job.

When we stop to think about it, we all know that treating the symptom and ignoring the cause never works. We look to the common advice on “curing” stress and overwhelm? Get outside. Have lunch with a friend. Take a walk.

Sounds great, did I mention I’m a nurse?

So if the idea of a lunch break or getting outside during your work day is laughable, what do you do? What do you do when your patient load is heavy or a crisis comes up and you start running on pure willpower and adrenaline (or coffee)?

The solution is simple and it starts with identifying 5 things you do every single day at work. I can’t identify them for you. You have to do it.

Ok ok- I will give you the first one. You get one freebie and only because no matter what setting you work in you do this “routine” multiple times a day. Washing your hands. (It’s not rocket science, I am looking for easy, daily routines)

Here are some other examples:

answering the phone

heating up coffee

walking into a patient room

writing down your daily schedule/ assignment

dictating notes (aka charting)

heating up more coffee

filling a water bottle

peeing (ok that is a luxury I have gotten now that I am in private practice, if you work in the hospital may not be able to put this on your list)

Or maybe you work in a school and have period bells or other routines specific to your environment. Give it a minute and think of these routines. Write them down.

Identifying these routines is step one to dealing with overwhelm after work, to decrease the stress of the day DURING the day rather than trying to play catch up when the day is over. It’s the same strategy I use with my chronic pain patients. Don’t wait for the pain to get so severe that it is impossible to get over it.

Try and cut it off at the pass. Get ahead of the pain before it gets ahead of you. Intervene at the first sign.

So identification of routines serves 2 purposes. First routines can act as a cue, a signal to your brain to do something that will promote a new circuit (and ultimately trigger a new habit). Secondly, routines can move you forward without taking up any time. Attach the solution to work overwhelm to the activities AT WORK.

We are going to stop stress in its tracks!

Ok,well maybe slow it down a little.

So how do you take these routines that you are doing anyway, pair it with the conventional wisdom of stress management, and jam them into a busy schedule that waits for no one? Try this.

First: Wash your hands with awareness.

No, I’m not joking. Calming cleaning, serene scrubbing, whatever you want to call it. This is 30 seconds multiple times an hour that you have at your disposal to reset your mind (if you want to). Maybe you breathe in and out and follow your breathing.

Another option, try the mindfulness tool of mental noting, paying attention to the sensation of the water on your hands, the temperature of the water, the smell of the soap, the sound of the sink. This sounds pointless but it trains your brain to focus on what you tell it to, rather than defaulting to nonsense. It slows down the stress.

Second: Exercise in plain sight.

Yes, even nurses who are on their feet all day and doing 20 things can build some exercise into the work day and I am not going to tell you to take the stairs or park further away.

If you have a blessed moment to pee, take an extra 20 seconds to stretch your arms above your head or push them out to the side like you are Han Solo in the garbage chute (please don’t touch the walls). We spend a lot of the day leaning over, looking at the computer, bending over patient beds, pushing carts. Take a minute to open up your torso and stretch. If not in the bathroom then maybe when heating up coffee, or taking report.

Or maybe you want to up your game.

What if you went up and down on your toes 20 times every time you signed out a pain medication. When I took my first ballet class as an adult (which is a story for another time, use your imagination), we did an exercise called 64 killers. We basically stood in place facing the barre (a med cart could substitute nicely) and went up and down on our toes for 64 counts of music. It was brutal. I have found it is a great way to increase the blood flow to those poor aching legs, and you can do it in plain site. I would maybe not start with 64 unless you are an overachiever.

Other ideas:

Isometrics when on the phone

Head rolls and shrugs when documenting vitals

Jumping jacks when a patient cancels an appointment (I speak from experience when I say make sure the doors to other patient rooms are closed for this one)

Enlist your coworkers for ideas and see what you can come up with. It feels really funny to exercise at work, an instant mood boost especially when you get caught.

Third: Relax your body.

Nope not with meditation or yoga, we are at work, remember?

Start with dropping your shoulders, relax your jaw, then move your attention up and relax your eyebrows. I know it sounds ridiculous but I can almost see you trying to relax your eyebrows as you read this. Who knew eyebrows can be stressed? This is a big one and if you can remember to do it you will be amazed. And no, I’m not exaggerating, you really will be amazed.

Now that you have practiced the whole eyebrow thing, pick an activity to link it to. You could try it every time you walk out of a patient room (walking in you may be distracted by the patient). Or maybe the cue is walking into the nurses station or the lunch room. Maybe it’s filling up your water bottle. Pick something easy. If you spend all day relaxing your body it won’t be so wound up when you get home.

Fourth: Pick a mantra.

Have you ever found that you talk to other people much better than you talk to yourself?

This is one of the hidden benefits of mantras or inspirational quotes. We can use someone else’s words to talk to ourselves.

Now I am not going to tell you to spend 10 min every morning looking in the mirror and saying affirmations (course that probably wouldn’t hurt if you have 10 minutes in the morning). Instead, pick a mantra for the day and write it somewhere you can see it, a post-it on your computer, on your daily schedule, as a banner on your phone. What type of day do you want to have? How do you want to feel? And, don’t say “good.”

Be more creative, think it through, be intentional.




Now pick a mantra (or write your own) to use during the day to bring you back to your intention.

Here are some examples.

No matter what happens today, I will handle it.

“Either you run the day, or the day runs you.”Jim Rohn

Today I will give great care.

“Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” Maya Angelou

I feel great when I do my best work.

Generosity is never wasted.

Again, tell your brain what to think instead of reacting. I think you will be surprised how just this step can make a huge difference in the overall perception of your day.

Fifth (and final): Decision cures overwhelm.

Too much to do? Break it down and do the first step. Decide what to do and do not allow yourself to wallow in overwhelm. Do not say you don’t know what to do. You know the next step, you got this. Do the step, move to the next one

Your work day is over!

If you are on a roll, you can attach a restorative activity to your commute home. Maybe now is when you talk to a friend or even just sit in silence (imagine that).

When you get home you may choose to spend some down time in the evening, but good news, your life won’t depend on it.

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