It was Christmas Eve.

Nurse Cynthia Hickman was working a shift in a cardiac acute care unit care of a hospital. Her patient that night was a 17-year-old with cardiomyopathy who had just given birth, which had significantly worsened her condition. Suddenly, the patient crashed. Despite the immediate efforts of Hickman and the rest of the care team, the young woman died. A teenager. A brand new mom. On Christmas Eve.

The hospital chaplain was called in to comfort the patient’s family, as well as the care team. However, when the chaplain arrived and learned about what happened, the magnitude of the moment set in and she broke down sobbing. Able to manage her stress, Hickman stepped in to comfort the chaplain.

Reflecting on that traumatic night, Hickman doesn’t feel she acted as some sort of hero, or was necessarily stronger than anyone else present. No, she was simply prepared.

“I was able to do what I had to do because I had been vigilant in preparing for the stresses of being a nurse,” recalls Hickman PhD, RN, MSN, who now serves as a faculty member with Capella University’s nursing program. “I have always had an attitude of inclusion, meaning I work hard at having a robust support network that can help me, and each other, through the hardest times of being a nurse. That takes proactive thought and action. It didn’t just happen.”

Clearly, the holidays can be a stressful time. For nurses like Hickman and so many others, the pressures of the job can make it particularly hard. With the holidays upon us, Hickman shares the following tips to help nurses manage stress at the holidays.

Ask for Help

It seems obvious, yet it’s often the last thing nurses who are feeling stressed do – ask for help. Hickman adds that even when a nurse does reach out for help, too often they haven’t built the support system to answer that call.

“No nurse is an island, and none of us can handle the stresses of this job alone,” Hickman explains. “But before you ask for help, you have to identify your team. By that I don’t mean just the nurses you work with; I also mean friends, neighbors, people from church, etc. You need to have the infrastructure, your team, in place to deal with stressful situations when they arise.”

Stop Trying to Be the Superhero

Nurses are notorious for this – trying to be the superhero who takes care of everyone, all the time, without ever needing help themselves. Humbug, Hickman says. Especially at the holidays, nurses need to know their limitations and either ask for help, or simply say “no.”

“If you are a nurse who wants to reduce stress at the holidays, tell yourself you can’t do it all,” Hickman says. “Once you do that and accept your limitations, you are more likely to ask for help. When you admit you are vulnerable, the walls start to come down. Saying ‘no’ at the holidays can be your best friend and help everyone to be jollier.”

Let Go What You Can’t Control

A close cousin of trying to do it all is needing to be in control. That desire can be just as toxic for nurses during the holidays.

“You have to let go of those things you can’t control,” Hickman says. “You can control your own actions, for good or bad, but it’s much harder to control what those around you do and say. You have to let go. It gives you permission to move on without that angst.”

Take Care of Yourself

Now this is a hard one. With cookies and eggnog and holiday parties galore, taking care of yourself can take a backseat at the holidays, to say the least. However, it can be done. It’s all about being intentional, Hickman says.

“Be intentional about avoiding those things that can get you in trouble, such as eating or drinking too much,” Hickman says.  “Also be intentional about engaging in those activities that promote physical and mental health, such as regular exercise or meditation. If you are not intentional and put yourselves in situations of temptation, well, you’re likely to cave.”

She also recommends nurses make time for relaxation at the holidays to truly detach. By that she means don’t do anything. Don’t scroll through Facebook on your phone. Don’t watch TV. Don’t think about work and your list of to-dos. Don’t do anything.

“Even if it’s just 15 minutes, let your brain and body relax,” Hickman advises. “That is core to destressing, as so much stress lives in our minds moving a million miles an hour. Relax with a cup of tea or a warm bath. Spoil yourself, if even for a few minutes, by doing nothing. It’s not selfish. It’s necessary, especially at the holidays.”

Hickman is the author of “From the Lens of Daughter, Nurse, and Caregiver: A Daughter’s Journey of Duty and Honor.”

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