An image of a nurse practicing meditation at work to help with stress management.

It's time to sound the alarm and make nurse stress management a priority in healthcare. Over 100,000 nurses left their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, with hundreds of thousands more set to follow by 2027. Are you feeling STRESSED just by reading this? Not to worry! I have a story about a camel and some mindfulness techniques for nurses that could very well change your life.

A staggering 75% of nurses report intense stress in 2023, which we know is the precursor of burnout. So, it’s no surprise that nurse burnout levels have doubled since 2000.

A Story About Coping With Stress in Nursing

One day, a few years ago, I joined a small group of nurses standing in the back corner of the intensive care unit (ICU) where I worked. I had heard about the physician they were talking to. He had been injured and could not perform surgeries anymore, so he started a business teaching mindfulness. I listened to him talk about the strain and pressure we were under. He used this illustration.

"Picture a camel mounded high with heavy bags, but people keep adding more—one bag here and another there. Just when you think there's no space left, they somehow find a way to load another. This camel is just like the nursing profession. You're being asked to carry more than you can, and you feel like you're going to break. What do you think is a solution?"

We all had suggestions for him, such as: Tell the administrators we can't handle any more workload. Hire more nurses. Fill out unsafe workload forms. Go on strike. Reach out to your nursing boards. Send letters to the nursing association. Speak to your local politicians. Call the media.

He waited for the babble to settle—then quietly spoke. "Strengthen the camel."

We were so busy suggesting actions and strategies to lighten the load that none of us thought of caring for ourselves. We were quiet while he discussed the benefits of mindful techniques for nurses coping with stress.

To be clear, our profession's loads are too heavy, and we need to keep advocating for change. But for today—let's concentrate on how to cope with stress.

A photo of a camel in the desert with text that explains how the nursing profession, like a camel burdened with heavy bags, faces increasing demands. While nurses can make suggestions to lighten the load, you can also strengthen the "camel." A perspective that reminds us that amidst the chaos, self-care and mindful techniques are vital to coping with stress.

Understanding Nurse Stress

Let's face it. Burnout happens when we're dealing with too much stress at work, and it negatively impacts our health.

As nurses, we see and smell disturbing things. We've heard more sad stories and witnessed more deaths than we can remember. However, the stressors that top the list leading to burnout are the lack of support for nurses—unsafe staffing, increased workloads, not having a voice in the decisions that affect their jobs, long hours, and feeling undervalued.

Burnout leaves us feeling depressed, anxious, cynical, disengaged, and exhausted. Like the example of the camel, we have a choice. We can stand there until we collapse under the weight—or we can be proactive in caring for ourselves.

We can do things like eating healthy, saying no to extra shifts, taking control over our nursing hours by working with ShiftMed, going to the gym—and practicing mindfulness.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is choosing to be fully present in real-time—purposefully slowing down to feel the sensation of air entering our lungs, the flower petals beneath our fingers, and the heat of the summer sun on our faces.

In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn opened a stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts, where he developed a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Using a framework of Buddhist traditions and scientific principles—and based on the premise that our minds influence our physical health, he created a structured approach that is now taught worldwide.

Practicing mindfulness reduces our stress levels and helps us to relax. Mindfulness is effective in decreasing depression and anxiety, regulating our emotions, increasing our ability to show empathy and compassion—and in coping with nurse burnout.

Julia Sarazine, a nurse practitioner who teaches mindfulness to other nurses, said, “Mindfulness is not the magical wand that can solve all our problems and prevent burnout. But it is a tool we can use to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others.”

A woman practicing meditation in a forest with text that lists four stress management techniques: mindful breathing, body scan meditation, guided imagery, and mindful movement.

Mindfulness Techniques for Nurses

The wonderful thing about mindfulness is that there are different techniques to fit your personal choices and lifestyle. It's something that you can do at home, at work, sitting at the nurses' station, or in your car before you head home at the end of your shift. The most important thing is that you do them!

Now, let's explore four different nurse stress management techniques—beginning with mindful breathing exercises.

1. Mindful Breathing Exercises

Mindful breathing is just breathing—in the moment and being present. It’s an easy technique to incorporate into your day because it can be done anytime and anywhere. It can reduce your anxiety and depression—and help with coping with stress in your nursing position. There are different types, but let's choose an easy one called 4-7-8 breathing.

  • You can try it right now—while you're reading this article.

  • Sit down in a comfortable chair.

  • Exhale—letting all the air out of your lungs.

  • Now, breathe in through your nose while counting to four.

  • Hold your breath and count to seven. 1...2...3...4...5...6...7.

  • Now, exhale through your mouth while counting slowly to eight.

  • Repeat as often as you want.

There are other types of breathing techniques—such as deep breathing, combining breathing with meditation, and pranayama, which is best done with an instructor or app to guide you.

2. Body Scan Meditation

Body scan meditation is beneficial to relieve the aches and pains you feel every day caused by stress. The technique teaches you to survey your body for areas of tension and strain—to take the time to handle your discomfort and create a mind-body connection. You can do this exercise on your lunch break or in the evening when you get home.

Sit back and relax. Now, take several deep breaths—reaching deep into your belly instead of shallow breaths from your chest.

Focus your attention on one area of your body. Ask yourself if you feel any pain. Concentrate and let yourself feel it. Now, focus on releasing it. Visualize it evaporating like a wisp into the air. Focus on your breathing and move to the next body part if you have time, or keep your sessions short by focusing only on one body part.

3. Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a technique that uses your imagination to reduce stress and requires a quiet location where you won't be interrupted.

Now, find a comfortable chair or lie on your bed. Play some quiet music if you don't find it distracting. Start by taking some deep breaths. Close your eyes and visualize being in a location that makes you feel happy and peaceful—or choose a positive memory to focus on.

Use your five senses to feel, hear, see, touch, and taste your memory. Breathe and focus on the peacefulness you are feeling. Take as long or as short as you need to enjoy relaxing.

4. Mindful Movement

Mindful movement focuses on the joy of moving and stretching our bodies to release stress. Purposeful awareness also increases our happiness and sense of well-being.

Mindful movement can mean anything from walking, kayaking, or running a marathon to taking a yoga or Pilates class—as long as you are practicing self-awareness by feeling your breathing, the muscles in your legs stretch and contract, and the feel of the wind on your face. Mindful means being present.

Mindful movement doesn't have to be eventful. You can practice it while charting at the nurse's station by doing something as small as a neck stretch.

While sitting in your chair, cross your legs. Now, reach over your head with your right hand and touch your left ear. Hold tight—and bring your left ear down towards your shoulder. Do you feel the stretch in your shoulders and neck? Hold it and breathe for five breaths. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Now, release the stretch and return your head to an upright position. Switch sides and do it again.

Or why not practice mindfulness the next time you wash your hands? Feel the water running through your fingers, smell the soap, and look at the bubbles foaming. As you can see, mindfulness can easily fit into your day and doesn't require that much time.

Real-Life Mindfulness Success Story

Read Julia Sarazine's story on how using mindfulness changed her life.

After leaving nursing, Julia struggled with trying to process all of the deaths she witnessed. A friend recommended The Power of Now by Elkhart Tolle. She read it and then began to meditate each morning. She was able to focus more and notice moments of joy in simple things such as a warm breeze on her face, a smile from a stranger, and the taste from the first sip of coffee in the morning.

When she returned to her nurse practitioner position five years later, She used mindfulness to keep herself grounded in the moment so she could think critically and not absorb patient and family emotions.

Stress Management Conclusion

Many of you are struggling with the damaging effects of burnout. I completely sympathize with you because I've been there. However, you now have the knowledge and practical instructions to try something different—something that can reduce your stress levels and give you a different way to live. A joyful life.

Alice Blackmore, MN, RN, Content Writer

Alice is a registered nurse and healthcare writer. She has more than 20 years of nursing experience, which ranges from labor and delivery to long-term care, with pediatrics, community nursing, and critical care sandwiched in the middle.

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