27 nurses share their best tips for self-care during the COVID-19 pandemic

As the pandemic rages on, the nurse community is at the forefront of the crisis, putting their physical and mental health at risk.

Here, 27 nurses share advice on how they protect themselves against burnout and handle stress during this unprecedented public health crisis.

Note: The following responses were edited for length and clarity.

Question: What is your best self-care tip while working on the front lines of the pandemic?

Kimberly Ortmayer, RN. Clinical Supervisor at Atrium Health's Levine Children's Hospital (Charlotte, N.C.): I personally have three self-care tips while working on the front lines of this pandemic.

First, I take 10 minutes after I park my car to just take some deep breaths and think of three positives in my life. This helps center and calm me before I walk into work.

Second, when I am off, I have at least one "no phone day," as my 8-year-old daughter calls it.

Third, the Peloton [exercise bike]. I can just put my headphones on and for a short period of time I can just clear my mind and sweat it out.

Leigha Fallis, RN. Chief Nursing Officer at Piedmont Rockdale Hospital (Conyers, Ga.): My advice to nurses or healthcare staff is to always take good care of yourself first so that you can provide good care to your patients. It is always important to eat well, exercise and get plenty of rest, but this is even more important during this pandemic.

Kristin Christophersen, DNP, RN. Chief Nursing Officer at Fountain Valley (Calif.) Regional Hospital & Medical Center: The best self-care is to take time for yourself — to mentally and physically regroup. Nurses are not good at caring for themselves. We are givers and forget about ourselves. Self-care might be exercise, meditation or simply spending time with family.

My personal self-care is being with family on the beach (when it reopens!). The sound of the waves and bright sun remind me how in the anger of the surf, the calm always follows. And who can't be happy when there is a big bright sun smiling at you and giving warmth!

Jade Flinn, RN. Nurse Educator for the Biocontainment Unit at Johns Hopkins Medicine (Baltimore): The best self-care tip while working on the front lines is to know that is OK to not be OK I think we as nurses feel the need to stay strong and unwavering so as to keep up this "hero" image. Although us standing resolute in the midst of crisis does give those around us a sense of security that someone has things under control, we must remember that we are still human. Our kryptonite may be hubris and our need to be anything and everything for our patients and team. However, to be able to show up and give all of ourselves day in and day out, we have to be able to turn that inward and fill ourselves up. We must take care of ourselves so that we can take care of others.

Tracy Stark, RN. Nurse at St. Luke's Health System (Boise, Idaho): I find that in any crisis situation it is a natural response to quickly do what you can to address the crisis. In our situation here in the medical/surgical unit, I made sure I paused before acting, to take safety measures [into account] first. If I'm not safe, it's not going to help others or myself.

I realized that I wasn't paying attention to my basic needs:water, nutrition, rest and exercise. I made sure I stayed hydrated by keeping a bottle of water nearby and made healthier food choices in snacking, even with the generous outpouring of food from the community. I took the stairs instead of the elevators — part of my exercise routine — and got out in the fresh air every day after work.

Michelle Patch, PhD. Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing (Baltimore): I find that stepping away and power walking, if only for five minutes, helps me clear my head and refocus on priorities: our patients, families and staff. Also, humor is incredibly powerful and has really lifted me up during difficult moments.

Robyn Beall, RN. Nurse at St. Luke's Health System (Boise, Idaho): Take one minute to intentionally pull your shoulders back and take three to five deep breaths. [This] resets my attitude.

Kristen Frost. Critical Care Clinical Nurse Specialist at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission (Merriam, Kan.): I would encourage people to reach out for counseling services. So often, people are too proud to ask for help with mental health and are concerned about the perceived stigmas that asking for help may carry. Nurses are always working to care for others but often forget to care for themselves.

Jessica (Danielle) Major, RN. Nurse in the Medical/Surgical Unit at AdventHealth Hendersonville (N.C.): My best self-care tip while working on the front lines of the pandemic is to work outside in the yard.

Cheryl Connors, DNP, RN. Patient Safety Specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital (Baltimore): The best self-care tip while working on the front line is paying attention to your emotional, psychological and/or physical stress response. I do this by identifying how I am responding to stress. Many of the feelings that have been showing up for me at various times include feeling sad, angry, anxious, tired, frustrated, agitated, scared and disengaged. Once the feeling appears, I find a space to acknowledge the feeling. I will do this with myself or with a colleague. Once I acknowledge the feeling, I can apply a grounding strategy to help me relieve some stress.

Almost daily, I remind myself of my potential stress responses and the strategies that I find effective to help me address my stress. Some examples of grounding strategies are breathing and noticing what you feel as you take time to intentionally fill yourself with air. Breathing can help me get back to a state of less intense emotion. My favorite strategy is to think about a resource in my life, such as my cat. She makes me feel so happy. Knowing that at the end of the day, I can go home and snuggle with her brings me comfort. I also look forward to having a cup of coffee on my porch in the morning. Knowing that I can do that tomorrow floods me with feelings of joy and relaxation.

So, my self-care tip would be to pay attention to yourself. Identify your stress responses and accept them as normal. Then list some grounding strategies that you can use anywhere at any time to lessen your feelings of stress.

Monica Powers. Assistant Chief Nursing Officer at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission (Merriam, Kan.): In order to provide whole-person care during my time at work, I need to take time for myself. It is amazing what a few minutes alone to breathe deeply, say a prayer or just listen to the birds outside can do for my mind. This small reset has been a daily necessity throughout this pandemic. Taking advantage of these small moments helps me to be balanced at work and at home.

Thomasina Jones. Nursing Manager-Pediatrics Ambulatory Care at MetroHealth System (Cleveland): Reflect on the top three positive things that happened during the day while incorporating meditation.

Carolyn Hopper, RN. Administrative Director, Clinical Operations at AdventHealth Hendersonville (N.C.): My advice is to take a few minutes each day to totally disconnect, whatever that means for you. We are all experiencing sensory overload, too much information, too much noise, too much communication. Find a quiet, calm space to unwind for a period of time and allow yourself to recenter and reconnect with yourself.

Stephanie Wise. Chief Nursing Officer at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission (Merriam, Kan.): To care for others, we must have enough energy left to fuel our own body, mind and spirit. This requires a cognizant effort to provide our whole being with great self-care. For me, eating healthy, whole foods is extremely important to feel energized and ready to tackle a tough day. It also assists with keeping our immune system working to its fullest potential and keeping the body healthy while fighting this pandemic.

Melissa Hughes, RN. Nurse in the Medical/Surgical Unit at AdventHealth Hendersonville (N.C.): My best self-care tip while working on the front lines of the pandemic is to walk, clean and work out in the garden.

Kelly Gilhousen. Clinical Nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at MetroHealth System (Cleveland): To offer each other grace. Everyone is dealing with this in a different way from a different perspective.

Rochelle Smith. Nurse Manager in the Ambulatory Network at MetroHealth System (Cleveland): I've taken the time to look on Pinterest for new recipes since eating out at a restaurant is not an option. I've found that many of my favorite restaurant dishes I can cook at home. I've lost a few pounds, and so has my family. We are excited about all the new recipes we have planned to try this summer.

Justine Dechiara, RN. Nurse in the Medical/Surgical Unit at AdventHealth Hendersonville (N.C.): My best self-care tip while working on the front lines of the pandemic is to run more, so you can be outside and get more fresh air.

Rachel Ogilby. Clinical Nurse Specialist-Critical Care at MetroHealth System (Cleveland): Give yourself a break. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up, and don't judge them. Maybe you are feeling grateful that you have a job or that your family hasn't gotten sick. Maybe you are feeling worried or scared. You might be angry, feel guilty or saddened. Know that all of these emotions are valid.

It's an emotional time for everyone, and it can be exhausting to have all of these feelings. Emotions surface in mysterious ways — you might be tired, cranky, weepy or have a shortened temper. Allow yourself more rest than you normally would, and create time to do things you love even though the circumstances likely have changed. Try not to pass judgment on yourself, and just be aware of the feelings you have as they come and go. You are awesome!

Kumarie Singh. Nurse Manager-Cancer Care at MetroHealth System (Cleveland): I limit television viewing and go for a walk or bike ride, or do yoga, baking — something fun — twice a week with my daughter. Also, I keep in touch with loved ones via FaceTime.

Julie Medas. Clinical Nurse Specialist-Neonatology at MetroHealth System (Cleveland): Walking outdoors! FaceTiming with loved ones, especially my daughter who lives in New York City, to see she is safe and healthy.

Matt Kuffel, RN. Nurse at Harrison Medical Center (Bremerton, Wash.): My best self-care tip is to make sure to stay active. I wake up and run every morning and find time daily to get outside in our yard with my kids. I feel it's important for all of us to get outside and spend time off and away from screens.

Kevin Quick. Flight Nurse Specialist-Emergency Medicine at MetroHealth System (Cleveland): Do what you are trained to do without fear. When off work, be off work mentally as well. Limit your news intake to one to two days a week.

Jennifer Beigie. Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program Coordinator-Forensic Nursing at MetroHealth System (Cleveland): Exercise! Just getting up and moving not only has many physical benefits but has done wonders for my mental health. Being a forensic nurse during the pandemic, I have seen a lot of domestic violence cases. These cases are sometimes mentally draining. I have a Peloton and make an effort to ride three days a week for 30 minutes, which helps me relieve stress.

Subhneet Kaur, RN. Nurse at St. Joseph Medical Center (Tacoma, Wash.): During these stressful times, self-care is extremely important to help temporarily forget about the stressful challenges thrown at us every day at work. I recommend focusing on something you enjoy or find therapeutic. I love helping my little girl explore the outdoors or taking her on short walks. I have also collected an abundance of indoor and outdoor plants that have kept me busy! And for the nights I have extra time, I love throwing on a new [face]mask, lighting a candle and bumping my favorite music. With everything closed and no errands to run, my skin has been looking great!

Michelle Simonelli. Nurse Manager in the Ambulatory Network at MetroHealth System (Cleveland): My greatest gift that I can give to myself and others is to try to remain positive at all times. It is important to realize that each and every one of us has to remain strong: physically, mentally and emotionally.

Even though routines and schedules have changed, I try to appreciate what I have in life now and make the most of it. I have started to eat healthier, made some changes in my exercise routine, and I am trying to make sleep more of a priority than before. Socially connecting to my friends and family has increased, and that continues to put a big smile on my face each day!

Since I am able to ease my stress level by working on the above, I come to work daily on the front lines of the pandemic and try to spread my self-care tips with my staff, providers and my patients.

Tracy Greathouse, Nursing Professional Development Specialist at MetroHealth System (Cleveland): The No. 1 best self-care tip I can suggest is prayer. Second is asking for help/support while at work to avoid burnout — and taking days off to allow mental breaks to promote self-care. Unfortunately, there's not much to do during this pandemic, but you can still enjoy time off by spending time with family, having a self-made spa day, watching comedy movies and taking a walk or gardening and making home improvements.

More articles on nursing:
60% of nurses say organizations don't adequately support them through pandemic stressors: 6 survey findings
Nurses say changing guidelines, unsafe conditions are pushing them to quit
The backbone of healthcare: 3 CNOs on what COVID-19 has taught us about nursing

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