Stress isn't the problem
What if stress at work isn’t a problem? Wait, what???
It feels like a problem.
And then there’s that whole physiologic response to stress with the cortisol effects and their sequelae…and the link to heart disease.
So how could it be possible that it’s not a problem?
Let’s start at the beginning.
When we chose nursing, we knew that stress was inherent to the nursing role. It’s not like anyone thinks “Maybe I’ll be a nurse, that will be easy.”
But the potential for stress was outweighed by the good we can do.
We know that nursing involves responsibility, hard work, critical thinking, long hours and limited pee breaks.
We know that it involves heartbreak and courage, irritation and compassion, exhaustion and satisfaction, tolerance and boundary setting.
And that’s just in one shift.
And yet, it is easy to think when we finish a particularly tough day or week that the stress we feel from work means something is wrong. We get stressed that we are stressed. (How’s that for a compound effect?)
Especially when we know all the bad things stress can contribute to and especially when the physical feelings that we get from stress are interpreted in our brains as dangerous.
Here’s the thing, stress doesn’t equal burnout. Stress doesn’t equal heart disease or death.
Do you feel like your head is going to explode?
Stress is ok if we can manage it, even if we manage it some of the time.
And managing stress doesn’t mean not experiencing it.
We can’t wall ourselves off from it. It is a normal part of the human experience. It’s one of the emotions that we will have no matter what we do with our lives, just like joy or sadness. So if we can’t avoid it (as much as we would like to) what can we do about it?
For the last 22 years I have worked in pain management. Through this, I see similarities between the experience of stress and chronic pain.
Like chronic pain, stress may always be a part of our lives. We can work to decrease the stress OR we can build up our ability to deal with it AND build up our other resources so we are going in strong.
We can solve for it or roll with it.
We can accept that some days may be better than others,
and sometimes, like chronic pain, there may be no rhyme or reason behind it.
But also, like chronic pain, we can let it take over or we can focus on the things that are important to us, like focusing on our patients, like doing a good job, like holding on to the fact that what we are doing is important, even when it’s messy or imperfect. It doesn’t make the stress go away, but it builds up our resilience to it.
So what does building our resources or supporting ourselves actually look like during the day?
Some days it may look like asking for help or giving help to our coworkers.
Some days it may look like exercising and getting enough sleep.
Some days it may be dropping the story that you aren’t a good mom because the laundry didn’t get done and now your kid is wearing a dirty little league shirt to the game (where it will get dirty anyway).
Some days the best you can do may be to not have the doughnut in the breakroom because you know the sugar will make you feel gross in 30 minutes.
It all counts.
It’s all ok.
We can totally deal with the stress if we build up our resources and if we stop panicking that we are on a sinking ship. The ship can’t kill us because we are our own life jackets.
No one is better prepared to care for someone than us. Keep focused on caring for yourself. The little things matter. Care for your coworkers as best you can, even if it is just a kind word or covering them so they can pee.
The reward of nursing can temper the stress, and the reward is patient care. Always. We do have what it takes… and it’s ok that we’re tired.
The work is hard.
And we’re doing it.
I am excited to be re-offering the class “Reclaim your happiness at work: 5 steps for nurses.” This is the class that I gave at the NJ State Nurses’ Association, Region 4 meeting last month. It was so interesting that each nurse came away with something different after our 45 minutes together. I hope you consider joining me next Wednesday night. You don’t have to be miserable to want to feel better at work, and if you are miserable, this is definitely something that can help. Click here to register, if the time doesn’t work for you, I will send you a replay.
I hope you consider taking this first step to feeling better. After all, what do you have to lose?