Nurse Burnout is a real and deeply personal topic. The following is a personal account of one travel nurse’s experience in dealing with burnout and rising from the ashes.
“And when all that was left was ashes, she would again clothe herself in flame, rising from the dust of her past to rekindle the spark of her future. She was a Phoenix, her own salvation; rebirthed, renewed, resurrected.” — LaRhonda Toreson
I was burned out. Burnt to a crisp, really. I was bitter, angry, frustrated and tired. My back hurt, my feet and shoulders hurt; my soul hurt. It all came to a head when, one day at work, I suddenly burst into tears, snot and all, crying the ugly cry. It was silly, really, and I was beyond embarrassed. No, I didn’t cry over some tragedy with a patient, or even over an error. Nope, I cried over a shower. Seriously, I, a hardened ER nurse who’d seen the underbelly of society working in an inner city ER, lost my cookies over the docs kicking me out of their shower. Was this some kind of joke?!
Let me explain. I’d been riding my bike to work because we only had one car and my husband needed it. Every day I arrived at work, sweaty and smelling like a billy-goat so I showered in the on-call room in our ER before my shift. One day, administration locked me out, saying that shower was for doctors only. It was a small offense, one that would normally make me angry, but not something I would typically burst into tears over. But I became unhinged. I hid in the bathroom trying to compose myself. Something was really wrong with me.
Nurse Burnout: I’d finally reached a breaking point
After that embarrassing episode, I realized that I’d been holding back my feelings for a long time before those floodgates burst open. Nurses don’t have the luxury of dealing with their feelings in real time- there’s work to do! I had carefully put aside the sadness that threatened to overtake me when that baby was born dead to a drug-addled mother; I’d swallowed the anger that flashed inside when a patient called me a stupid bitch; I suppressed the frustration I felt over declining resources. And I’d been doing it for years, stuffing my feelings down deep inside me, tucked neatly away to be dealt with at a more appropriate time. Except I never did deal with them. Instead, they lurked there, just beneath the surface, a sleeping volcano waiting to erupt.
When I look back it surprises me that no one had raised concerns. The signs of my emotional decline were definitely there- I’d neglected my appearance, was short tempered with my co-workers and had stopped going to social gatherings. I was in pain, too. When you tuck away emotions every day they begin to pile up, weighing you down, making you tired and sore. You begin to walk differently, like you’re carrying a heavy load. Your back and shoulders ache. You don’t hold yourself as upright; the burden bends you, distorting your body and hunching you over. Then the injuries begin.
I needed help
I obviously couldn’t be breaking out into a mess of tears all the time at work, though I often felt like it. No, I had to get a hold of whatever was going on with me, and I needed to do it fast. I needed a therapist but it was surprisingly difficult to find one! Access to mental health services, even for those of us blessed with good insurance, is difficult at best. But that’s a topic for another day….
While I set out to find an appropriate therapist, I began seeking support by opening up to trusted friends. It was a reasonable place to start, but not a whole lot of answers came from those sessions, only loving support, which I wrapped myself in like a warm, comfortable blanket. It was comforting, but it wasn’t the solution. I loved my job, and I wanted to be able to continue to be professional and effective in interactions with peers and patients. I didn’t want another emotional outburst to undermine my credibility. Getting mental health care became a priority both for my own sanity and for my professional efficacy.
Nurse Burnout: Making steps forward
I found a therapist and began to go weekly. I used to call it “weeping Mondays” because that’s what a lot of the sessions were in the beginning. But, slowly, together with my therapist, I uncovered the issues that were causing me to feel so badly. We talked about how my work required me to withhold strong emotions and that how ignoring feelings can lead to problems like anxiety and depression. I started to understand, and the sessions slowly involved fewer tears and more objective reflection. I began to feel more confident and effective at work when dealing with difficult situations. A weight had been lifted from my back and I began to feel energized and whole again. It led to a host of other small, healthy changes, too, and slowly, day-by-day, I felt better. The nurse burnout that I was experiencing was finally diminishing.
I realized that once I was able to bring the stories behind my emotions to the surface, I could look at them objectively and finally understand why they made me feel angry, sad and frustrated. I came to understand that my feelings are valid, they’re based in my personal values and that they deserve to be examined and felt, not hidden away and disregarded. I, too, have value and I started treating myself like a person of value. A lot of interesting things happened after that little revelation. I noticed that I was more objective when conflicts arose and could respond from a place of intellect instead of emotion because I’d been able to sit with my emotions authentically and compassionately. I’d treated myself with dignity and, as a result, my communication and leadership skills improved as I treated others with more dignity and respect as well. Things got a whole lot better for me at work and at home.
Have you ever had to hide in the med room to fight back tears? Or maybe had an emotional outburst that was less than professional that left you feeling embarrassed and devalued? I encourage you to sit with your emotions for a while. What underlies them? What can you learn about your personal values? Look, I know you’re tired and sad and hurting. And it’s scary to confront powerful emotions. But you’re also strong, and our power lies in unearthing what makes us feel these feels. Allow yourself to experience it. Let those feelings rise to the surface; sense the release. Maybe you need help? Sometimes it may be necessary to get professional help so that you can release your emotions safely and with guidance. There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it. Dealing with nurse burnout made me a better nurse.
So cry! Laugh! Scream out in frustration and fury. Let it rise up and flow through you and let it out. Then, when you’ve felt all you can feel and you’re spent, take time to look past the feelings at what lies beneath. Discover your spark in the ashes.