Barbara J. Headley RN, DNP By Barbara J. Headley RN, DNP • May 1, 2023

How Nurses Can Make Self-Care a Priority and a Habit

Each year, the American Nurses Association (ANA) commemorates National Nurses Month in May to honor the varying roles of nurses and their unwavering commitment to patients, their communities and our healthcare systems. For 2023, the ANA has selected the tagline You Make a Difference, with each week of the month-long nursing recognition focusing on the themes of self-care, recognition of fellow nurses, professional development and community engagement. To promote these themes, join us for a month-long TESU Blog series contributed by our nursing course mentors. Week 1 looks at self-care and cultivating and maintaining optimal mental health and physical well-being. 

As a nurse and a mentor, I place the utmost importance on the health and well-being of my patients and students.

I remember first teaching about nonmaleficence, doing no harm to patients, and what it really meant. Now, I wonder, what about us?

We also need to consider ourselves. The best way to get the care we need is through self-care.

Signs of Burnout

As professionals in the field of nursing, many of us regularly experience burnout. The topic of self-care was made extremely clear to me during the COVID-19 pandemic. We can all learn from this experience, which left so many of us burnt out on all levels. I have seen burnout all around me in my fellow nurses and in my students.

Some of the signs of burnout I was seeing in myself and others were (and maybe still are): anxiety, depression, emotional detachment, chronic exhaustion, the inability to focus, insomnia and frequent illness.

How to Practice Good Self-Care

Good self-care is a gift to ourselves (and others). If we are doing a good job of taking care of ourselves, we will be preventing disease as well as promoting and maintaining good health and the ability to deal with stress, illness and disability — if needed. Self-care is extensive. We need to take care of ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Without regular self-care, we won't be any good to ourselves or others.

So what exactly is self-care? I've given this topic a lot of thought and here are several activities for promoting self-care:

  • Resting — this can be anything from staying in bed with a good book or watching a show to taking a bath.
  • Traveling — can include visiting people or exploring new or well-loved places.
  • Doing something creative — this can be anything, even doing puzzles!
  • Exercising — it has been scientifically proven that walking just 20 minutes daily can improve our physical and mental health.
  • Staying socially connected — we are social creatures and need human interaction to thrive.
  • Meditating — this could be anything from sitting quietly to going to church/synagogue/temple/mosque.

How to Turn Self-Care Into a Habit

Additionally, we need to be consistent. If you are at all like me, you tend to focus on self-care sporadically. But I know that self-care should not be an occasional indulgence and that consistently doing the things that are good for me equals excellent preventative care, reduced stress and a better disposition.

The greatest gift we can give ourselves is to turn self-care activities into habits. Although we are challenged in maintaining consistent self-care — for a number of reasons — there are tools to help keep us focused. These can consist of:

  • Varying self-care activities — let’s keep it fresh and interesting. Exploration counts as self-care!
  • Making a plan — I know it might seem silly, but I’m so busy sometimes that I need to schedule self-care, especially when I’m planning a vacation.
  • Developing self-compassion — practicing self-affirming assertions and speaking kindly to ourselves will help establish the habit of self-care.
  • Asking for help — no one can make it alone, and it’s OK to ask for help when we need (or even want) it.

Self-care is essential for our own well-being and for others in our lives (family, friends, patients). If we are struggling to take good care of ourselves consistently, we should at least consider doing so for those around us; without taking good care of ourselves we won't be in good enough shape to care for our patients or anyone else. Truly, self-care is a win win!

To learn more about the nursing programs at Thomas Edison State University, visit the School of Nursing and Health Professions here.

Barbara J. Headley RN, DNP

Written by Barbara J. Headley RN, DNP

Barbara J. Headley, RN, DNP, has served as an adjunct faculty member and mentor in the W. Cary Edwards School of Nursing and Health Professions since 2005. She is the CEO and owner of Gateway Counseling Center, working with families and individuals in need of mental health services. She is an eating disorders specialist with an award-winning history of excellence and promotes health and well-being within schools, social services and conferences. She has a history of medical/surgical nursing, ICU, behavioral health and other specialties, though her passion is teaching students the meaning of evidence-based care, asking questions and reaching for a better and safer way to take care of others.

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