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Nursing Burnout: The Solvable Problem Within Your Control

By Jen Barnes, LCSW Aug 02, 2022

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I am a therapist and you’re likely a nurse, but if you’re reading this blog, we have at least one thing in common

I am a therapist and you’re likely a nurse, but if you’re reading this blog, we have at least one thing in common: We feel the weight of the past two years and don’t know how to get out from under it without quitting our jobs or leaving a career we worked so hard to achieve. Worse yet, it feels like the system we’re in — the U.S. healthcare system — doesn’t care or isn’t doing enough. In other words, we are burned out.

While factors in our work environments often contribute to experiencing burnout, ultimately we can only change ourselves and how we show up in the world. I’m here to share some ways you can help yourself feel good again — and maybe even regain your love of nursing.

Maybe you …

  • Collapse on the couch after shifts with no energy for anything except binging on Netflix and scrolling through social media
  • Know you need to exercise, sleep and eat well but you just can’t get yourself to do it
  • Are tired of people telling you to “just do more yoga”
  • Forgot what it feels like to have fun
  • Have stopped caring about patients like you did before
  • Feel stuck in a job that you used to love

And maybe you’ve tried …

  • Increasing your self-care
  • Sleeping more
  • Venting to other nurses, your partner and/or friends
  • Complaining about the messed-up system
  • Leaving your job

… but found none of these made much difference.

Here’s the thing …

(This is, perhaps, a tough truth, but it’s a necessary one.)

The problem isn’t that you’re exhausted, losing compassion and empathy or hate your job. It’s not even the broken healthcare system, which is a problem but is out of your control and not likely to be fixed anytime soon.

The problem is a belief. It’s a deep-seated belief you likely hold that as a nurse, as a true caretaker, you need to put everyone else ahead of you and your own needs — and the system you work in is taking advantage of that belief.

The truth is …

  • You are not responsible for everyone and everything.
  • The more you work extra shifts and the more you accept too many responsibilities, the longer it will take your organization to see the need for change.
  • Your organization — not you — is responsible for appropriate staffing, treating nurses well and optimizing patient outcomes as a whole.
  • Hospital administrations consider documented metrics when making decisions. For example, if the data shows that all nursing shifts are covered, they will likely assume staffing is fine. So, when you take on too many extra shifts thinking it will help patients in the short term, it can actually exacerbate the problem in the long term for both you and your patients.

You can only do what you can do in the system you’re in. The situation you are in is not your fault.

It is this unhealthy belief about putting yourself last that isn’t working. For things to change — for you to feel better and perhaps even for hospitals to make changes — you need to try something different. It’s time to release false beliefs and get unstuck, to free your heart, mind and body and build resilience.

Before you can do that, you need to release stress that is stuck in your body. That’s the piece I can help you with.

What does it mean to release stuck stress from the body?

As a brief A&P review, when our fight or flight response is triggered (sympathetic nervous system), adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol flood our system to give us what we need to protect ourselves — to fight or flee. The thing is, often we aren’t actually fighting or fleeing, so the stress response is incomplete; that excess energy gets stuck in the body.

This is part of why you might feel so awful right now.

The good news is that there are simple ways to complete the stress response and release that energy so you feel good again.

The most effective way to complete the stress response is … MOVEMENT.

Since the purpose of the flood of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol is to fight or flee — to move — movement is the most effective way to resolve the incomplete stress response and release stuck energy.

It is essential to get in at least 30 minutes of movement per day to prevent buildup of stress in the body. This 30 minutes is in addition to movement at work.

Movement could mean going for a walk or run, dancing in your kitchen, taking a Zumba or barre class, doing strength training, riding a bike or even catching up on yard work.

Six activities to release the stress response

It is also essential to do at least one of the following six activities each day to support completion of the stress response and release of stuck stress in your body.

  • 1Breathe with intention

    We’ve all heard this one before, but the reason is because it works. Try taking a slow breath in and a long breath all the way out until your abdominal muscles contract. Repeat this two more times and notice how you feel.

    Another breathing practice I like involves movement with the breath, called Volcano Breathing. You can watch a video of this practice here.

    Note: If you have a history of complex trauma, one alternative for working with the breath is to simply invite the breath in and notice it. No need to try to change or control the breath; just invite yourself to notice it.

  • 2Positive social interaction

    As humans, we are wired to connect. When we are around other humans, particularly those with whom we feel safe — especially when they are relatively calm — we can co-regulate with them. That is, if they are calm, we can feel calm just by being around them. Whether it’s your kids, pet, partner, parents, co-workers or local barista, strive to have daily positive social interaction — in person, not just online or texting — to complete the stress response and calm your body.

  • 3Laughter

    Uncontrollable, ridiculous, full-bellied laughter (no fake laughter here) is one of the best stress relievers. Even reminiscing with someone about a time you laughed like that has a positive physical and psychological impact. Laughter is a great, fun way to complete the stress response and regulate your body.

  • 4Warm hug in a safe and trusting relationship

    Hugs are the best! This is what I call a decent hug: A 20-second-plus, no-holds-barred hug where you are both leaning into each other and breathing together. The oxytocin released will help calm your body while completing the stress response.

  • 5A big cry

    Ever notice how much better you feel after a big cry? Especially if you pay attention to the crying itself versus thinking about things or focusing on the stress? It seriously works. If you’re not sure how to get started, consider free-association writing about whatever comes up. Your feelings will emerge and you will find yourself shedding healing tears.

  • 6Creative expression

    Do something, anything, to express yourself creatively. This could be writing, drawing, singing, playing an instrument, painting, crafting, dancing, acting, woodworking and more. When we give our creativity an outlet, it helps complete the stress response and allows positive emotions and energy to flow.

The Bottom Line …

If you want to feel better and banish burnout, you need to prioritize these daily practices to release the stuck stress and keep it from building up. Take a moment to identify one or two activities that resonate most and schedule them in your day. Put them on your calendar as an appointment with yourself, and set a reminder on your phone.

As AACN immediate past president Beth Wathen so aptly said in her opening remarks for the NTI 2022 conference, “Nurses need to put our own oxygen masks on first.” It’s true. You need to put your own self-care first because you can’t serve others from an empty cup … and because that’s what it takes to live a life you enjoy personally and professionally. Now is your time. You are worth it!

What are you doing to put yourself first?