Nursing is an emotionally taxing career by any measure. By serving the infirm, the traumatized, the bereft, the dying, and the needy, the work of the nurse can take a toll on emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. We must also bear in mind the impact of chronic stress, secondary trauma, and the moral and ethical dilemmas that are part and parcel of healthcare.

When the nurse’s emotional bank account runs dry, they can get into trouble and fall victim to burnout, compassion fatigue, and spiritual distress.

So how can an earnest and well-meaning nurse who wants to maintain some semblance of balance make regular deposits to his or her emotional bank account and stave off the ravages of long-term stress and the challenges of working as a professional healthcare provider day in and day out?

An Empty Well

An emotional bank account is one that pays many dividends over time, and an empty emotional bank account earns no interest whatsoever since the “principal” has been woefully unreplenished.

Nurses are often people who go the extra mile for others both at home and at work. Such a nurse may regularly help an elderly next door neighbor with his medication management, be the go-to person for medical advice for immediate and extended family, volunteer at the local shelter, and otherwise give, give, and give some more until there’s nothing left to give.

The nurse who is always serving others at her own expense is bound to be challenged in her life and work. An empty well serves no one, and the nurse without interest or ability in emotionally and spiritually recharging is shortchanging herself (and her family, colleagues, and patients) in a most profound manner.

If we’ve worked in healthcare, we’ve likely all encountered an emotionally stunted nurse who martyrs himself on the cross of patient care and career while completely ignoring his own well-being.

This nurse may seem “crispy” and on the edge of burnout; he may also appear uncaring, cold, or otherwise out of touch with the suffering all around him. This form of compassion fatigue may lead the nurse to be curt with both patients and colleagues, belying a short temper and significant impatience with others. It can even lead to bullying behavior.

If we understand the warning signs of burnout (e.g., lack of compassion; spiritual emptiness; the effects of chronic stress, etc.), then the nurse can counteract and/or prevent it by making regular deposits to his emotional bank account in the interest of doing more than just surviving.

The Practice of Self-Care

If the nurse is ready to begin making deposits to his or her emotional bank account, no deposit slips, ATM, or password are needed. This process simply involves being willing and able to do the work of self-care so that balance is achieved.

There are endless strategies for keeping a healthy balance in the emotional bank account, and no list will be exhaustive. The following is meant as a guide, suggestions for the nurse ready to commit to taking the reins and giving something back to him- or herself amidst the stress and hard work of being a dedicated healthcare provider.

To wit:

  • Connecting with favorite spots in nature
  • Engaging in regular exercise
  • Eating a balanced diet and staying properly hydrated
  • Weeding out negative habits and addictions
  • Finding simple yet satisfying spiritual practices (e.g., prayer; expressions of gratitude; attending faith-based services; meeting regularly with a favorite faith leader; meditation or yoga; etc.)
  • Seeing a psychotherapist or counselor for support
  • Engaging in creative pursuits like visual art, music, writing, poetry, improv, acting in community theater, etc.
  • Spending time with animals and children
  • Traveling near and far for pleasure and leisure
  • Reading books, listening to podcasts, and engaging with other forms of media for both personal growth and entertainment and escape
  • Finding satisfying recreational activities
  • Nurturing important relationships and friendships

Each nurse must find within him- or herself the willingness and dedication to not just give to others. While such martyrdom or co-dependency can be worn as an odd badge of honor, the long-term cost of not tuning into one’s own emotional well-being can be dire.

Nurses who wish to remain viable, engaged, highly functional, and balanced in heart, mind, and body ignore their emotional bank account balance at their peril; staying attuned to one’s own needs goes a long way towards maintaining perspective, providing optimal patient care, and living a life that’s balanced relatively perfectly between work, home, family, and personal wellness.