By Julie Anderson, RN
As nurses, we nurture, heal, care, and advocate—unless we’re talking about ourselves. We continually ignore the warnings of “put your own oxygen mask on before you apply someone else’s.” We run trauma rooms while barely breaking a sweat. We face hostile patients, family, and coworkers and calmly de-escalate, redirect, and reassure everyone with a smile on our faces. Still, what is the cost of continually putting others’ needs before your own? Oftentimes going from one crisis to another barely able to take a deep breath, let alone debrief on what just happened and how it will affect us later on.
As a nurse working primarily in mental health, I developed a unique “power.” The keen ability to stay calm in stressful, dangerous moments is a pretty good attribute when dealing with patients in crisis. I was generally able to remain physically calm and collected while my insides were screaming at me, “get the hell out of here!” I stayed because my patient needed someone to talk to them and redirect them in a non-judgmental and forgiving manner. My coworkers needed me to stay calm. I needed me to stay calm. What I didn’t do (even though I knew I needed to) was take care of myself, allow myself to process.
After years of suppressing my natural emotional response, I suddenly realized I was no longer able to control it. Emotions would creep out at the most inopportune of times. When I would normally remain calm and stoic, I was suddenly turning into a blubbering fool, cracking under the slightest pressure, showing weakness. Then I thought, what if all this time, allowing myself to suffer trauma after trauma and not allowing myself proper time to debrief and assess my own thoughts and fears was the true sign of weakness. I tell my patients all the time that they need to express and accept their emotions so that their emotions do not control them. Yet here I was continually ignoring my own advice and suffering in silence. I could no longer be silent. I was ready to scream.
Recently, I stopped ignoring my own mental health issues and made a step forward in my own stability. I began going to therapy. Such a simple task, it took me more than a year to take that step. Always finding some reason to avoid it: too busy, too broke, too proud to do what was necessary to allow myself to heal. Now, I have begun my healing process. I am able to take a step back and breathe. Allow myself to be human. Allow myself to be present for me and, in turn, be more present for my patients. So, my challenge to every nurse is what are you waiting for? Taking care of yourself is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength and a path to healing. Take that bathroom break, take that vacation, eat that chocolate. Allow yourself that moment to breathe, and open up to that therapist. After all, how can you truly take care of your patients if you haven’t taken care of you?