Self-Care in Nursing School: What Does That Really Look Like?

By Sarah Collins

04/22/2022

Stress is a part of everyday life. However, if you let stress overwhelm you, it can interfere with your health and ability to function. While you’re probably tired of hearing about it, self-care in nursing school is critical to your success there. If you want to be a successful nurse, you have to learn to take care of yourself and pay attention to all aspects of your health.

As you incorporate practical self-care into your daily routine, you’ll be better able to cope with stress and deal with the challenges of nursing school.

Key Takeaways:

  • Nursing school is stressful, and how you handle the stress can impact your time as a student and as a nurse.
  • Good self-care habits in nursing school can help you manage stress and improve your overall health and well-being.
  • Self-care looks different for each person, but taking small steps to work on your health can make a huge difference.

What Is Stress?

As noted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, stress is our bodies’ response to changes in our lives. Stress can result from both positive and negative experiences. For example, having a new baby can be stressful but exciting. Losing someone you love is both sad and stressful. Also, you can experience stress on both a short-term and long-term basis.

Often, stressful situations cause anxiety, negative emotions, and adverse reactions in your body. If left unchecked, stress can cause immense strain on your body and impair your abilities to work and learn. Therefore, before going into nursing school, you need to plan how you’ll manage stress.

Stress in Nursing School

Nursing programs are incredibly demanding. You’re learning a lot in a relatively short amount of time. You learn about how diseases impact the body and the best nursing care to address health problems.

Many nursing programs have strict standards. You have to get specific scores on the exams and pass your skills tests to continue in the program. These assessments are demanding.

You also have clinicals, where you interact with patients in a way you haven’t before. Even if you have experience as a certified nursing assistant, your role and capacity are now different. For other nursing students, the environment is entirely foreign and daunting.

In addition, the clinical environment is the actual healthcare setting. The unexpected will happen, particularly in acute care settings. You might participate in a code, care for a patient on hospice, or experience a patient’s death. As you learn and gain experience, you will better respond to these situations. But in the moment, they can be highly stressful and even overwhelming.

How Does Stress Impact You?

Stress can negatively impact your body, including your mental, emotional and physical health. Everyone responds to stress differently. As noted by Mayo Clinic, stress can have physical symptoms, impact how you feel, and impact your behaviors.

Stress symptoms can include:

  • Headaches
  • Pain such as muscle pain or chest pain
  • Fatigue and insomnia

Mayo Clinic also notes that stress can affect your mood and behavior. When you’re stressed, you might feel anxious, restless, or overwhelmed. You might seem angry, irritable, sad, or depressed. Also, you might not eat like you usually would. Stress can also cause you to lash out at people or withdraw from social activities.

People might turn to unhealthy practices to decrease stress, such as drinking excessive alcohol or improperly using medications.

The Experimental and Clinical Sciences Journal notes that stress can contribute to the following problems:

  • Reduced memory function
  • Declines in your ability to think and learn
  • Suppression of your immune system
  • Increased risk for heart and vascular problems
  • Digestive problems and changes in appetite
  • Changes in the function of the endocrine system

This study also notes that stress can positively impact the body in the short-term but can be detrimental if prolonged. Because nursing students and nurses are constantly in stressful situations, they must form good habits and develop positive ways to cope with stress.

Forming Habits: What You Do in Nursing School Will Be What You Do as a Nurse

Habits are actions that we form over time. It takes a long time to develop good habits, and it can take an eternity to break bad habits.

The NIH News in Health notes that we form habits partially through repetition. If we do something repeatedly, we’re more likely to continue. But patterns can also develop due to triggering the reward center in our brains.

Doing certain activities triggers our brain to release dopamine or our “happy hormone,” making us want to repeat the action. When you work to form good habits, you develop self-control and self-discipline.

Regardless of how long your nursing program is, it’s enough time to create healthy or unhealthy habits. Nursing school is stressful, and nursing will be too. If you overeat when you’re stressed in nursing school, you’re more likely to continue these unhealthy eating habits as a nurse. Suppose you start smoking or increase alcohol use to deal with your stress during nursing school. In that case, you’re more likely to continue these behaviors in your nursing career.

In contrast, if you take time to care for yourself in nursing school, you’re more likely to continue these practices. If you give yourself a bedtime so you can get enough sleep, you’ll retain good sleep habits as a nurse. This lifestyle is beneficial as nursing will throw off your sleep schedule enough without any effort on your part.

What to Avoid: Turning to Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

As noted by StatPearls, coping mechanisms are the thought patterns and actions we use to cope with stressful circumstances. They are what we consciously choose to do, meaning we have control over developing healthy or unhealthy coping mechanisms.

There are different types of coping mechanisms, which can help deal with stress. Notable mentions include directly addressing the problem, reframing our emotions about the situation, and seeking social support from others.

Conversely, there are unhealthy or maladaptive coping strategies such as avoiding, disengaging, and suppressing our emotions. StatPearls also notes that these strategies are often associated with poor mental health outcomes. People who use them are more likely to smoke or drink alcohol.

As a student and in your career as a nurse, you need to learn how to cope with stress. One component of stress reduction is engaging in good self-care and avoiding behaviors that hurt your overall health.

What Is Self-Care?

The World Health Organization gives the following definition for self-care:

“The ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.”

So, self-care encompasses all aspects of your health and how you respond to changes in your health. It includes things like your personal hygiene, eating, and lifestyle choices. These all contribute to your health and well-being.

Self-care can include how we care for both our minds and bodies. Health consists of aspects like our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It will look different for each person, but you can take steps to improve your self-care practices as a nursing student.

Self-Care at a Practical Level: What You Can Do

Okay, you might be thinking, “It’s alright to explain how stressful nursing school can be, but I don’t have time to execute self-care. I need to focus on passing nursing.” Anyone who has been a nursing student understands where you are coming from. However, the habits you develop now will spill into your nursing career.

You need to take nursing school one step at a time. Understand that even small changes can have an immense impact on your well-being and stress levels as a nursing student.

Here are some practical tips you can incorporate into your daily nursing student life for self-care:

 

Give Yourself a Bedtime

Yes, that bedtime can be two in the morning, although most people wouldn’t recommend it. You’re often going to have nights of late studying and working on assignments. However, pulling all-nighters is never helpful in the long run. Give yourself a specific time where you say “enough is enough.”

Why?

Because there’s a point where staying up isn’t beneficial or productive for you. Thus, getting enough sleep is vital as it improves all areas of your health.

 

Drink Water and Give Yourself Reminders to Stay Hydrated

Water is essential to your health. While our exact needs differ, it’s necessary to make sure you’re drinking enough based on your health history.

Carry a bottle of water with you and drink frequently. Have your water bottle with you during clinical, lecture, and study time to help remind you to drink.

 

Utilize Your Social Supports

Your family might not understand everything you’re going through right now. Still, it can be helpful to involve those closest to you. Have honest and potentially awkward conversations upfront. Sometimes, you’ll want to talk about a rough day, and other times, you need your own space. Set down guidelines for your reading plan and when you’ll need time to focus on studying.

You’re going to need people who are unconnected to nursing. You’ll need moments where you don’t have to think about nursing. Therefore, it’s a good idea to make friends with students outside your discipline.

 

Exercise

Maybe you don’t have time to go to the gym, but there are practical ways to incorporate a few extra steps into your daily routine. Park your car a distance away from the lecture hall, so your walk is a little longer.

Take a stretch break and a brief stroll when taking time away from studying. Finding ways to integrate short bursts of activity can be helpful: walk up that extra flight of steps to find a library study space or go to the far door to get into the skill’s lab.

 

Make Friends With Other Nursing Students

You need support from the nursing field as well. Nursing school is where you practice how you’ll work with other nurses and medical professionals. You’ll need people you can vent to and people to study with also.

Making friends with nursing students in your clinical group is helpful, especially if they prove helpful to you at clinicals. You can help each other learn and make the clinical process go smoothly.

 

Take Steps to Eat Healthy

It’s hard to follow a healthy diet in nursing school, mainly because of the demanding hours and time you have to devote to the program. However, you can still make healthy food choices along the way.

For example, when you pack snacks for clinicals, carry at least two healthy snacks that can boost your energy. Consider veggies or a piece of fruit, and try to include some protein to keep you going throughout long clinical hours.

Family members and friends can also help. When you prepare meals, those around you can help you plan healthier options and guide you toward healthy choices.

 

Give Yourself Limits on Alcohol and Caffeine

While a little coffee can be helpful and a little alcohol can help you relax, using them in moderation is essential. Keep track of the number of cups of coffee you’ve had and give yourself a healthy limit. It can be easy to overdo it, especially when stressed about nursing.

Be careful not to overdo alcohol either. As tempting as it may be to have one more sip, dealing with a hangover later will only make you feel worse and lose valuable study time. Tell your friends your limit and stick to it.

 

Engage in Relaxing Activities

It’s easy to start rushing and thinking about everything you need to do on a typical nursing school day. You need to study, get to lecture, memorize those meds for your upcoming quiz, and find time to wash your scrubs!

Commit at least five minutes daily to meditate, pray, or engage in deep breathing exercises. These activities can help you calm down and manage your stress.

 

Take Time to Do the Things You Enjoy

You might not have as much time as you used to when it comes to leisure. Nonetheless, engaging in some fun can reduce your stress and improve your overall health.

Spend a few minutes reading a book you love. Engage in a hobby you enjoy. You can even use this as a reward for finishing certain activities. For example, after completing a certain amount of studying, reward yourself by doing something fun.

You’re Going to Make a Great Nurse!

Take a deep breath. Nursing school is stressful; no one denies that. However, if you hurt yourself, you won’t be in a position to help people. If you turn to unhealthy habits now, they’ll worsen once you start practicing as a nurse.

Remember that as you engage in self-care, you can work to reduce your stress levels, promote your health, and be at your best to help your patients and pass your classes. Hang in there and practice some self-care!

Additional sources not linked:

https://health.gov/myhealthfinder/topics/health-conditions/heart-health/manage-stress#panel-9

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/so-stressed-out-fact-sheet

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