First, I want to say a huge thank you to all the amazing nurses that told me with brutal honesty how they decompress after their shifts. Nursing is freakin’ stressful and it takes some time to unwind and let go. And honestly, sometimes no matter what you try you still take it to bed with you and it keeps you up at night.
The stress of nursing plays havoc on your health. Chronic cortisol impacts sleep, metabolism, inflammation, healthy hormone levels, mental and emotional wellness, and immune function. You already know this; you’re a nurse.
What is important to know, to remember, is that the knowledge you have can, and should, be applied to your own health and wellbeing too – not just in the care of your patients.
So, let’s talk a bit about how the majority of nurses tend to wind down after a shift.
#1 They watch television
#2 They eat
#3 They go to bed
This is, far and away, the norm.
And it’s likely the norm across the country for many different lines of work. You get home, you have dinner, you watch television, and you go to bed.
Here’s why this routine is harming your health:
Television is a Distraction; it doesn’t actually relieve stress – unless you’re watching the fireplace channel. Then maybe it does. But storyline, stress, tension on screen, drama and most shows stimulate. Watching television before you sleep actually reduces your quality and quantity of sleep. “The biggest problem is that the bright light that your TV screen emits may actually keep you up. In a natural world, your body clock is set according to the rise and fall of the sun. In the evening, you start to produce a hormone called melatonin that gradually makes you feel sleepy.” (Sleep.org)
Food Before Bed. Here’s the other issue. Studies have shown that eating before you go to bed harms your hormonal health and quality of sleep. Hormones are regulated during sleep. If your body is busy digesting, it isn’t able to optimally do the jobs that it’s supposed to do when you’re sleeping. During sleep,
“Growth hormone spikes, fat burning skyrockets, cellular repair occurs, brain pruning engages.” (Mark Sisson). If you eat before bed (or within three hours before sleeping) these normal health benefiting sleep processes do not happen or they don’t happen optimally. This leaves you hungry, tired, foggy, and craving foods you don’t need.
So what can you do instead?
Here are some ideas:
- Take a hot shower.
- Read a book (still escapist and a distraction, but without the light issues that impact sleep and circadian rhythm).
- Listen to music and journal.
- Meal prep for tomorrow.
- Exercise. I know you think I’m crazy here but it works well for some. Nurse friend, works nights in the NICU, goes straight to the gym after her shift. Then goes home and gets her kiddos off to school then goes to sleep.
- Household chores like doing laundry or cleaning the kitchen. Mundane tasks can help you wind down. Don’t go overboard and scrub everything. Just allow movement and activity to help you clear your mind.
- Plan your day tomorrow. Many experts swear by planning the next day the night before. Regardless of your shift, you can take some time after each shift to plan your next day. This gives your mind an easy task to manage while also allowing you to go to sleep knowing that you’re well planned and organized.
- Journal. Some people find that by writing down their thoughts, experiences, and gripes of the day, they clear them from their mind.
- Yoga. Yoga can ease your mind and body into a state of relaxation.
How I Decompress
I work 8-9 hour shifts and usually get home around 10 or 11 at night. I have a short, 15 minute drive home. During that time I practice deep breathing. I leave the radio off and simply drive and breathe. When I get home, I go through the routine of getting ready for bed. I don’t check my phone or turn on the television. I just get ready for bed and go to sleep. It’s easier for me, I think, because my shift is done at bedtime. Back when I used to work until 3 in the afternoon, I used to work out after my shift. It was hard to motivate myself to to to the gym after work, so tired!, but it was an effective way to release tension and focus on something else for an hour.
There’s no right or wrong way to unwind after your shift, but there are definitely better ways to do so. Try changing up your post shift routine and see how you feel.