With the competitiveness of nursing programs and applications, most students are excited when they finally start their nursing school journey. But between all of the exams, assignments, papers, simulation labs, and clinicals, many students wonder how they can succeed without completely stressing out in nursing school.
Whether you’re an aspiring nurse in training or an RN going back to school, it may be a great time to rethink your stress management habits as a student. Managing anxiety and tension in school has a lot more to do with how you think and plan than what you see on your syllabus.
In this guide, we’ll help you answer the ever-present question: how can I manage my stress better as a nursing student?
Nursing students and stress
Firstly, if you find yourself stressing out more than ever, you’re not alone. Studies have found that nursing students experienced higher levels of stress than students in other health sciences.
Instead of letting this information scare you, consider looking at this as a learning opportunity to find tools that help you stay calm under stress. All students manage stress differently, and finding what works for you enables you to be more mindful during your studies and manage your time wisely.
As a bonus, you can also use the skills you learn to increase your mental and physical well-being as a nursing student in your career as a professional nurse.
Here are a few helpful ways that you can manage your nursing school stress levels:
1. Journal before bed.
Nursing school is overwhelming, and your studies will feel like a constant weight on your shoulders. Additionally, you are learning how to save lives and help people cope through some of their most challenging experiences of their lives, which can weigh on you.
Fortunately, developing a journal practice where you write down exactly what is causing stress can help you pinpoint solutions and prevent catastrophizing the situation. One study of undergrad nursing students discovered that those who journaled about their clinical experiences had less anxiety about taking care of their patients.
Many students find that it’s easiest to remember to journal at the same time every day, such as right before bed. However, anytime you can remember to write in your journal is the best time. Consider keeping a designated journal with you at all times in case you need to write off some of your tension or nursing school stress. You may surprise yourself at how much better you feel after.
2. Find your support network.
No nursing student is an island, and finding support is essential for your well-being. Consider enlisting and reaching out to friends or family members who can be there if you are struggling. Keep in mind that who you have in your network matters. Some nursing students may find that their loved ones are unable to understand how complex nursing programs are, so turning to other nurses or nursing students in those moments may help.
If you need more support than what you currently have, you may want to consider reaching out to a therapist or nursing support group. Here are a few places to start:
- The Compassion Caravan: Virtual support network led by holistic nurses to help provide safe, compassionate communication and support.
- Talkspace: Online therapy for anyone who needs to talk is available 24/7 and accepted by many insurances.
- BetterHelp.com: An online portal that matches you with available counselors. The website states they “make professional counseling accessible, affordable, and convenient” so that anyone who needs help can get it.
3. Practice deep breathing to lower stress.
It may seem obvious that your brain needs oxygen to function, but breathing exercises can reduce anxiety and tension while also improving concentration and focus on your studies. There is a lot of research on why breathing is so effective at reducing stress. And for a good reason—the emotions we have directly correlate with how we breathe.
Your breath slows down and regulates when you experience happy emotions, such as excitement and gratitude. But if you’re experiencing negative emotional states, including anxiety or frustration (ahem, nursing school stress), your breath will become quick, short, and irregular.
Therefore, when you slow the rhythm and tone of your breath on purpose, you slow your heart rate and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” state.
Next time you are feeling the pressure, take notice of how you are breathing. Are you breathing erratically or fast? If so, stop what you are doing and take a few deep breaths until you calm down. You can also try exercises like the 4-7-8 technique, where you inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold it for seven seconds, and then exhale through your mouth for eight.
4. Let family and friends know you may be MIA for a while.
Nursing school can be stressful on relationships. My first professor gave me some great advice on managing this: be upfront with yourself and others about your demanding school schedule. That way, there’s no misinterpretation of why you miss out on social events, which can cause additional stress.
When I started my nursing program in 2010, I remember thinking that I would have a lot more time to socialize. Little did I know that nursing school would make me go MIA for two years! So I ruefully let my friends and family know that I was knee-deep in nursing school and that I would see them after completing my program.
They were still there for me in the end, helping me celebrate at my much-needed nursing school graduation party.
5. Find alternative ways to relax.
You may need to test out new ways to achieve relaxation that you have never tried before. Focusing on something completely different can help turn your brain off and avoid burnout.
Here are some simple self-care activities you can try to alleviate nursing school stress:
- Take a soothing bath. Order a box of bath bombs, so you have a reason to soak in the tub as much as possible.
- Try yoga. This discovery is what saved me in nursing school and gave me great focus.
- Meditate. There are so many free mediations to try on YouTube.
- Listen to your favorite podcast.
- Sit outside for a few minutes.
- Bake or cook a meal from scratch.
- Lay down and turn on your favorite music.
- Read an excellent non-school book.
- Go for a walk.
- Take a power nap. Invest in earplugs and eye masks to prevent interruptions.
Any hobby that gets you out of your head for a while will do the trick. Even mowing the lawn can reduce stress. Who knew? The point is to reduce your stress levels and chill out.
Note, it may be tempting to study while you do any of these things, but don’t do it. Your body and brain need a break to manage and prevent additional stress in your nursing program.
6. Recognize your stressors and learn to help yourself along the way.
If you already have known stressors in your life, the intensity of your nursing program would likely accentuate them. It may be an excellent time to take inventory of those known stressors and reduce them as much as you possibly can.
For example, if you need to dedicate a day to your schoolwork, consider limiting your time around people or environments that trigger more stress than support. You want to be able to focus your energy on your studies without distractions.
If you don’t know what your triggers are, this is where journaling (see tip #1) can help you find clarity. It may even be a good idea to carry a journal with you to make notes when you run into situations that stress you out. Later you can revisit these events and find ways to manage them better when you are feeling calmer.
Stay focused on your goal!
Nursing school will challenge you far beyond your comfort level and force you to think critically about the most important steps to achieve the best outcomes. That is how nurses give the highest standard of patient care possible.
But it is essential to acknowledge that school is temporary and remind yourself that you can do it! Stay focused on your overall educational goals during times when you start feeling overwhelmed. Most importantly, don’t quit. Your nursing credentials will be following your name before you know it.
Guest author Sarah Jividen, RN, BSN, SCRN, is a second-career nurse, freelance writer, mother of two, and founder of Mother Nurse Love, a resource for busy mom RN’s. Her nursing specialties include emergency room, neuro/trauma, and critical care. In a rare moment of spare time, you might find Sarah practicing yoga, writing, or attending a local concert venue with her husband.