Keep Your Cool or Burn Out

Strategies to Help Nurses Cope With COVID-19 Stress

A nurse in scrubs, mask, goggles, and gloves is leaning against her hand looking tired

Working in a hospital setting may fill us with the sense that we are battling an invisible enemy, and every code is a tug-of-war against the dark side. The COVID-19 pandemic has made those feelings more acute than ever.

Nurses may find themselves the sole support for their patients or a patient’s only means of communicating with their family. Some nurses have even had to deal with the horrific tragedy of their coworkers dying from the virus.

The stress levels of healthcare workers have never been higher, so it’s important that nurses prioritize self-care and find ways to recharge with positive energy.

That isn’t always easy these days. The pandemic has disrupted everyone’s daily routines. The news is full of doom and gloom, and many of your usual haunts may be closed for the duration. Socializing with people outside your household is tricky, and even going out to walk the dog means masking up.

However, nurses are nothing if not inventive. Here are some healthy recommendations to keep the stress in check.

How Are You Feeling? Let’s Revisit Some Coping Strategies

The Basics — Food and Water

In a crisis situation, it can be hard to avoid junk food, but good nutrition is important to maintaining your energy and your immune system. With the recurrent closures of indoor dining in California, many of us have rediscovered our kitchens. Some nurses are growing their own fresh produce or taking up baking. Some of us are focusing on staying well-hydrated. I have a hard time swallowing eight glasses of water a day, so I make up daily bottles of water to keep with me.

Break a Sweat

Perhaps you used to hit the gym after work to let off steam. That’s not an option now with the lockdown orders (and probably not a good idea even in areas where gyms are open), but nurses are finding other ways to stay physically active outside of work.

Daily walks and hiking are still options as long as you wear a mask and remember social distancing. (If you’re planning on going for a hike, be sure to check first that trails are open.) So are jogging, biking, tennis and golf. Most swimming pools are currently closed in L.A., but if you can make it to the beach, swimming and kayaking in the ocean are okay.

Hiring Now

Remember that you don’t always have to leave home to stay active. If you have a stationary bicycle or other exercise equipment that’s been gathering dust, this is a great time to give it a whirl. Even if you don’t, there are lots of free online exercise videos that require little or no equipment — and you can get a surprisingly vigorous workout with just a jump rope.

However you do it, getting enough exercise will help you reduce stress and assist you in getting a better night’s sleep.

Elevate Your Mind and Spirit

If you are religious, you may be finding comfort through prayer, reading scripture and inspirational books and attending virtual religious services. Nurses who aren’t religious or are nonpracticing can cultivate mental clarity through practices like positive affirmations, meditation or aromatherapy.

The key is to find ways to create a positive mindset and lift yourself out of the emotional doldrums. If spiritual practices aren’t for you, consider journaling to work through complex feelings, taking scenic drives, enjoying quiet time in the garden, listening to relaxing music or just watching the sunset. Adopting a shelter pet is another great way to boost your mood.

DIY projects

Do-it-yourself projects are turning out to be popular pandemic pastimes, particularly since hardware stores are considered essential businesses! Taking on small home projects or repairs, painting a room, redecorating, refinishing furniture, or reorganizing and cleaning out closets can help you feel recharged and renewed. (Check out the Netflix series “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” for inspiration.)

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Not all projects have to be practical. Arts and crafts and other hobbies help you unwind and give you something to look forward to on your days off.

Physically Distant, Socially Connected

Face-to-face socialization and parties are still risky, but if you miss your friends, there are other ways to keep in touch. Consider organizing a virtual movie night or an online book club with some friends you haven’t seen lately.

With a little creativity, you might also find games you can play together online or over text or email. Long before the Internet, people in remote areas would sometimes play chess or checkers by radio. With today’s technology, there are many other options.

Having a strong social network is an important strategy for managing stress. Even if you have good relationships with your coworkers, it’s often a relief to have conversations that aren’t about work.

Don’t Panic!

While the above ideas can help you recharge between shifts, the pandemic may also present you with some overwhelming moments at work.

If you’re in the middle of a stressful situation, take a few slow, deep breaths and do some light stretching. Deep abdominal breathing — even for a few minutes — is the simplest and most effective way to stop the fight-or-flight response. Try to concentrate on nothing but your breathing.

Another helpful technique for stress emergencies is visualization. Close your eyes for a few moments and imagine yourself in a calm, peaceful place, like the beach. Let all your senses check in: See the beach, feel the warm sun, hear the sound of the waves lapping the shore and smell the ocean air.

The goal is to create a mental retreat to counteract extreme stress. You can also train yourself to get this relaxation response by picking a keyword that you associate with your visualization. After a while, whenever you think or say your keyword, it will take you to your mental retreat space.

Other options include a quick self-massage or, if you’re able to take a break, listening to instrumental music with 60–80 beats/minute and low-pitched tones. Mozart’s music has been found to be a popular and effective choice for relaxation.

I hope you have found some helpful ideas here. The current crisis has been hard on everyone, but if there’s one thing we have learned from COVID-19, it’s that we can adapt and thrive.

HEATHER M. WALSH, RN, MSN-Ed., CNL, CHEP, is a registered nurse with decades of diverse experience in adult critical care, infection control, public health advocacy and educating new nurses and nursing instructors at colleges and universities in Southern California.

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