Self-Care for Nurses During a Pandemic

The devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic is far-reaching — from economic travesties to lives lost. For those on the frontlines, the stress and trauma is all too real. For some, it’s simply too much.

Nurses are critical warriors in the fight against the virus. Unfortunately, they are facing long hours, high-stress situations and the ultimate tragedy: death. If nurses don’t take measures to protect their own physical and mental well-being, they may lose their jobs, and even their lives.

Workplace precautions — like the correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE) — are crucial but only one small part of self-care. Nurses immersed in the pandemic’s depths can implement various tactics to ensure they don’t fall victim to COVID-19’s widespread physical and mental consequences.

Adequate Sleep Is Crucial

Sleep is not just “rest.” During slumber, your body creates hormones, proteins and chemicals that allow your immune system to operate at its best. Not getting enough sleep reduces the production of infection-fighting antibodies and cells.

Nurses often have difficulty shutting their brains off when they sleep, with the trauma they witness at work resurfacing in their thoughts. If you’re having trouble sleeping, check into various homeopathic or natural ways to help ease you into slumber. Supplements like melatonin and valerian root, or a calming tea like chamomile, may help. Some individuals find mobile apps like Headspace, Slumber or Calm to be effective.

Nutrition: Try Your Best

Eating healthfully is likely the last thing on nurses’ minds. With long shift hours and short breaks, vending machines and nearby fast food establishments are often the most convenient choice. Still, it’s important to try to eat well whenever possible. Some “processed” foods, like soups or frozen meals with protein, fiber and vegetables, can still provide essential nutrients. The important thing to remember is that it’s better to eat something rather than nothing at all, because nurses need all the energy they can get.

The Many Facets of Mental Health

Mental health is of utmost concern for those working with COVID-19 patients and their families. We’ve all seen photos of nurses spending those precious last minutes with an ailing patient when the patient’s family members can’t be there. Yet, those photos only scratch the surface of what nurses see.

There’s also a feeling of helplessness in battling a virus that seems to be everywhere, all the time and merciless to even the healthiest of individuals.

It all takes a severe mental toll on healthcare workers in particular, and recent studies have documented the burden. A study of the physicians and nurses in Wuhan, China, where the virus is believed to have originated, revealed workers suffered adverse psychological reactions at a high rate.

The findings, summarized in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), noted that “a considerable proportion of healthcare workers [in Wuhan] reported experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress, especially women, nurses, and front-line healthcare workers directly engaged in diagnosing, treating, or providing nursing care to patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.”

Specifically, the study identified a number of mental health conditions among the 1,257 worker participants at the following rates:

  • Depression, 50.4%
  • Anxiety, 44.6%
  • Insomnia, 34.0%
  • Distress, 71.5%

Of course, we don’t need a research study to validate the mental and emotional anguish that healthcare workers endure, especially during the pandemic. What nurses do need are ways to manage these feelings. Here are some strategies that may help.

1) Acknowledge what you’re feeling. It’s okay to have reactions to what you’re going through. Ignoring those feelings or trying to be stoic only suppresses your emotions and can make them worse. Make sure to acknowledge and validate your feelings.

2) Monitor your own well-being. Regular self-checks will help identify if you’re becoming so overwhelmed that it’s interfering with your ability to provide care — or if you’re putting yourself at risk.

3) Take a break from media — even social media. While Facebook is a way to stay connected, there’s also a lot of news and misinformation that only adds to the angst. Trust that your care leaders will inform you of essential updates. You don’t need to get that information from the 24-hour news cycle.

4) Engage in activities that bring you peace. That may mean yoga or meditation, a long walk, reading, journaling, listening to a comedy podcast or bingeing on your favorite series. Make time for what gives you solace.

5) Reward yourself. In her article, Emily Hunt fully supports giving yourself a gift now and then: “In the world where we go from stressful and traumatic shifts, to being stuck inside our homes, I think there is a lot of value that comes [in] embracing the hard work we are putting into our jobs and treating ourselves to special gifts.” She suggests buying yourself flowers at the grocery store or finally treating yourself to an item you’ve been waiting to purchase. “Having something to look forward to in the mail, although a small joy, is a little way to have healthy anticipation,” she adds.

Self-Care Leads to Better Patient Care

Implementing many of these strategies requires self-motivation, which can be a challenge in itself. Still, they are so important — not just for your own health, but also for the physical and mental well-being required to properly care for your patients. Nurses know this, and they’re sometimes trained in it. Yet, no one could have predicted the taxing nature of this unprecedented time.

Perhaps Hunt captures it best: “Spend time on yourself, because now, more than ever, we deserve it and need it so that we can be the best nurses for our patients.”

If you are experiencing extreme thoughts of sadness, depression, anxiety or hopelessness, there are resources available. Call 911 or 1-800-985-5990 (SAMHSA Disaster Distress Line), or text TalkWithUs to 66746. If you’re contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Learn more about the University of Southern Indiana’s RN to BSN online program.


Mayo Clinic: Lack of Sleep: Can It Make You Sick?

Healthline: 9 Natural Sleep Aids That May Help You Get Some Shut-Eye

Healthline: The 6 Best Bedtime Teas That Help You Sleep 10 Best Sleep Apps to Download in 2020, According to Experts

NPR: What These Nurses See on the COVID ICU in Seattle

JAMA Network: Factors Associated With Mental Health Outcomes Among Health Care Workers Exposed to Coronavirus Disease 2019 I’m A COVID-19 Nurse and These Are 5 Ways I Practice Self-Care on My Days Off

Managing Stress & Self-Care During COVID-19: Information for Nurses

Harvard University: The Nutrition Source: Processed Foods and Health

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