Stress Management Tips for Nurses

Nursing is an immensely rewarding, yet stressful, career. If nurses don’t develop effective coping mechanisms to navigate the challenges inherent in their jobs, it can negatively impact their physical and mental health as well as the care patients receive. Rates of job dissatisfaction, depression and burnout may also increase.

How Does Stress Affect Nurses?

The American Nurses Association (ANA) warns that stress is one of the most pressing issues faced by nurses, affecting nearly every aspect of their personal and professional lives. From emotionally charged and ethically challenging situations to the physical strains associated with repetition and shift work, the potential consequences of dealing with associated stress are significant.

According to a 2016 Journal of Nursing Research and Practice study, nurses with both high stress and poor coping skills were at risk for the worst health outcomes. Ninety-two percent of the nurses surveyed reported moderate-to-very high stress levels, which corresponded to worrisome lifestyle choices including:

  • 78% slept less than eight hours per night
  • 69% did not exercise regularly
  • 63% did not consume the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, with similar numbers stating they used food as a coping mechanism
  • 22% classified as binge drinkers

Nurses’ stress levels may be problematic for patients as well. A 2018 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study found that nurses with worsening physical and mental health were up to 71% more likely to make medical errors.

How Can Nurses Manage Stress Levels?

Although stress is near impossible to avoid, there are tactics that minimize its impact:

Plan healthy meals and snacks. Stress and the accompanying anxiety or depression affects your food choices. Hunger cues are missed or misread, leading to over and undereating in addition to poor food decisions. Having healthy meals and snacks prepped and ready to go keeps your eating plan consistent and prevents a run to the vending machine.

Focus on your breath. When you are in a situation that feels out of control, focus on your breathing to ground yourself. Box breathing is a simple technique that can be used anywhere. Simply breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold the breath for four seconds and then breathe out through your mouth for four seconds. Repeat for as long as necessary.

Enroll in assistance programs. Some companies offer employee assistance programs (EAP) that provide confidential counseling at no charge and resources for follow-up services. Programs target everything from mental health and substance abuse issues to the loss of a loved one and stress management.

Try journaling. Nurses routinely deal with heartbreaking and intense situations with patients. Journaling is a great tool to process the feelings that may arise from those encounters and at times offer a sense of relief and closure.

Schedule downtime. You’ll likely be on your toes throughout your shifts, and family and other personal commitments can frequently take up much of your leisure time. With such a busy schedule, it is important to build in dedicated periods of respite whenever possible. Consider meeting a friend for lunch on a regular basis, scheduling a massage to start each week or listening to your favorite podcast during the morning commute.

Relief Is Possible

Nurses should expect to face workplace stressors. The extent to which these cause psychological and physical harm is often best determined by the stress management techniques at their disposal. By taking advantage of the many resources available and developing an action plan, nurses can find relief and improve their well-being without negatively affecting patient care.

Learn more about Youngstown State University’s online RN to BSN program.


American Nurses Association: Combating Stress

Cleveland Clinic: How Stress Can Make You Eat More — Or Not at All

Healthline: Box Breathing

Journal of Nursing Research and Practice: The Impact of Perceived Stress and Coping Adequacy on the Health of Nurses: A Pilot Investigation

Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: A National Study Links Nurses’ Physical and Mental Health to Medical Errors and Perceived Worksite Wellness

U.S. Office of Personnel Management: What Is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?

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