Self-care has become somewhat of a buzzword over the last few years to the point where when I hear someone say “self-care” I get a mental picture of a woman dressed in a perfect outfit, laughing on her way to yoga class and drinking a green smoothie afterwards. But in reality self-care is so much more than that. Self-care looks completely different for each person depending on his or her current circumstances and needs. For some of my friends self-care means setting a time limit on phone conversations with their mother-in-law, or not taking on the extra shift when someone asks them to bail them out for the thousandth time. For others, it means exercising, reading, or even just lying in their bed in silence because they have spent all day caring for people and all they want is some peace and quiet.
Nurses are notoriously horrible at self-care. We expend so much time, energy, and in fact we have made it a career to care for the needs of other people, that we have little left for ourselves. Self-care is important, however, because how are we supposed to be sensitive to the suffering and needs of the people we are caring for if we are constantly denying our own? Always putting yourself to the side in order to prioritize the well being of others may feel like the right decision in the moment, but over time it takes a toll. Gradually you’ll find yourself ignoring call lights, labeling patients as “needy” or “demanding” in report, or trying to avoid a family who is panicking over the health status of a loved one and urgently wants their questions answered.
So what is the solution? Figure out what brings you joy and gives you life, as well as what you are doing for others that is simply not going to work in the long-term. I joke with my friends, “What are the things in your life that are basically styrofoam products—horrible for the environment and not sustainable?” I’ve discovered over time that the biggest “styrofoam cup” of my life is my avoidance of telling people what is really bothering me. Constantly internalizing my emotions led to me to experience an incredible amount of anxiety, so my greatest self-care is allowing myself to be authentic with people when the circumstances are right and seeking out those help when needed, whether that’s talking with my significant other, scheduling an appointment with my therapist, or calling a friend I haven’t talked to in a long time.
When we set aside time to fulfill a need we have realized is a priority, we are affirming that need and making ourselves feel heard. As strange as it may sound to make ourselves “feel heard”, our bodies and minds are actually constantly talking to us, telling us what we need. We have an obligation to listen.
Margaret Orrell is a student at Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
I very much enjoyed your post. It is something all nurses need to be reminded of constantly. I am the prime example of someone who goes until I have nothing left, and if I have nothing left, I cannot care for patients in the best manner possible. I make to-do lists often, and none of the things on them involve time for myself. I am learning that it is very important, not only for me personally but also for my work performance, to take some time for myself. I’m learning that my Styrofoam cup is to just bottle up all the things that bother me until one thing tips me over the edge, leading me to overreact over normally something small. That is not healthy, and something I am working hard on. I’m learning to find joy in my me time, and finding myself but discovering things I like to fill that time with. One of the most important reasons for nurses to take time for self-care is just as the IOM report says: By creating healthy habits for ourselves, we flourish as ambassadors of self-care for our patients, families, colleagues and communities. It is important for us as nurse leaders to set a good example for not only our patients, but our employees and colleagues as well.
Thank you Margaret for your on point article. I’ve been teaching self-care and self-awareness to nurses for over 20 years. It is still surprising to me that some nurses are reluctant to practice self-care (which can be defined in many personal ways) and some have not heard of it. The fact that you are aware and actively engaged in self-care as a nursing student gives me hope for our profession. My personal ‘holy grail’ will be to have self-care questions on the NCLEX. That will drive nursing schools to teach it and hopefully the next generation of nurses will see self-care and awareness as integral with excellent nursing practice. Best wishes on your nursing journey