Is Stress a Buzzword? How Healthcare Professionals Can Manage It

Sandy Sundquist Beauman, MSN, RNC-NIC / September 2018

What is stress? How do we manage it, and how do we reduce it, or know when we need to?

I’ve seen several messages pop up lately on my social network feeds about stress reduction, which is always a hot topic for healthcare professionals!

Stress is an important component and natural phenomenon of our lives

Stress has many definitions, but in this context, “the body’s normal response to anything that disturbs its natural physical, emotional, or mental balance” is most appropriate (MedicineNet).

Stress in a critical situation can serve to help us focus and perform better. How we respond to the stressor is different, perhaps related to the situation, the person, or our overall health. Some days, when the computer decides not to work, it is actually a relief that I have an excuse to do something else.  Other days, when I have deadlines to meet, the computer deciding not to work creates great stress and anxiety. And, once in a while, I wish I could remember what it was like before computers, e-mails, and text messages! When we simply did assessments of our patients (hands-on) and checked the boxes on our flowsheets. We read the notices taped to the bathroom wall to catch up on the unit news.

Stress may be positive or negative

A negative stressor might be the sudden death of a loved one or a terrible diagnosis. A positive stressor might be something like buying a new house, getting married, or having a child, all of which cause some mental and physical anxiety – but the happiness usually associated with these events counteracts the negative effect.

It is impossible to live a life free from stress. Just think of some of the things that cause you stress, such as meeting the bills at the end of the month.  Perhaps there are ways to decrease the payment required, or increase your income, but discontinuing your utilities to avoid the stress of having to pay the bill would only cause more stress when you had no heat, or air conditioning, or no running water!

Stress can result in physical symptoms

These physical symptoms can manifest in some cases like indigestion, headaches, or sleeplessness (although it is important to not automatically attribute these to stress when in fact, one or more might indicate a medical illness).

Indeed, for many of us, the source of stress is interacting with other people. In this day and age, many of our interactions are not very personal. As an example, texting or e-mailing someone rather than calling them to have a conversation can make a neutral request seem negative. Tone of voice in a verbal conversation can soften a communication and make it far less abrasive than a text or e-mail. In-person communication adds another level to that, as the non-verbal component is added.  Simply smiling at someone as you approach them starts the conversation out on a positive note. By reading the other person’s non-verbal communication, you are able to make judgements about whether your words are communicating what you intend – and clarify immediately rather than after that person has become angry and stressed over an unintentionally negative communication.

As our world becomes more connected and electronic, we sometimes forget that it is other people who are important to our happiness. Some of you may identify with working in an environment that may not offer the best money or hours, but you so enjoy the folks that you work with that you stay in the job.  Others of you may be in jobs where the money is good, it’s close to home so means less of a commute (or other positives), but the people you work with cause you stress and make you want to leave the job.  I’ve been in both situations, and the hardest jobs I’ve had to leave were the ones where I worked with a great bunch of people!

What are some measures to avoid or reduce stress?

Exercise has long been touted as a good way to reduce stress. I have a friend who was a lawyer in her career and had a punching bag in her basement. The punching bag had a name and a face and was a way for her to reduce stress when necessary.

Running often helps folks focus on their breathing and nature around them. Listening to favorite music or soothing bird calls as you move can further reduce stress.

Other methods of stress reduction might be yoga, which often involves some meditation as well. Essential oils, incense, or herbology may also help as some scents, like lavender, serve to specifically relax.

Avoid negativity when possible

Finally, I have decided to avoid negativity whenever possible, both personally and professionally. I recently participated in a research study on preventing/reversing burn-out, the Wiser study.

Burn out, a problem in healthcare particularly, is simply emotional (and often physical) exhaustion, usually as a result of prolonged stress. In this study, we were asked, amongst other things, to focus on three good things per week, which eventually became every day. This could be something simple like a lovely sunrise or sunset, someone smiling at you that day or waving, having a great dinner, not having to work late and many other possibilities.

It is so easy to focus on the negative, and we see that every day in our professional and personal lives. If someone is upset over something, that becomes the focus of every conversation until there is no room to see the positive. The stress from the negativity mounts up.

If we look at our lives, we see immediate news from around the world, usually bad news. When there is a fire in California, it is news in New York. Flooding in Vietnam, lava flows, earthquakes in Hawaii are constantly on our internet pages – whether we look for them or not. Every shooting or child abuse case appears in front of us. Not that we would want to avoid news in the world, but sometimes all the negative news becomes so overwhelming, that we need to hunt for positive things to focus on.

Perhaps just finding one or two positive things to focus on, not respond to or feed into someone else’s negativity, and to focus on how fortunate we are to have what we have (no matter how small) and be able to offer good care to our patients and families would be helpful to manage stress and improve our own well-being. And, if there is truly nothing positive in your work life, perhaps it’s time for a change!

Tell me in the comments below how you manage stress. What’s your favorite way to unwind?

About the Author

Sandy Sundquist Beauman has over 30 years of experience in neonatal nursing. In addition to her clinical work, she is very active in the National Association of Neonatal Nurses, has authored or edited several journal articles and book chapters, and speaks nationally on a variety of neonatal topics. She currently works in a research capacity to improve healthcare for neonates. Sandy is also a clinical consultant with Medela LLC. You can find more information about Sandy and her work and interests on LinkedIn.