How Nurses Can Care for Their Mental Health Around the Holiday Season

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated February 28, 2023
    The holiday season can be stressful and challenging for nurses. Check out these tips that can help lower stress and protect your mental health.
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    • Nurses’ mental health during the holiday season can be stretched and challenged by personal and professional stress.
    • The nursing shortage, looming flu season, and rising number of nurses leaving the profession can add stress to the holiday season.
    • Nurses can take a proactive approach to mental health through self-care, connecting with friends and family, and protecting their nervous system.

    Nurses are faced with stressful and challenging situations each day, but it can become overwhelming during the holidays. As the holiday season approaches, it’s crucial that you place the same value on your mental health as you do on caring for your patients. The nursing shortage, rising number of resignations, and looming flu season can take a toll on your mental health.

    Patient advocacy, empathy, and long hours on your feet can create the perfect storm to usher in burnout and nursing fatigue. Don’t give up, since poor mental health around the holiday season is not inevitable.

    Discover the tips and tricks nurses use to protect themselves from holiday surge stress.

    Tips for Nurses Caring for Their Mental Health During the Holidays

    Humans have a surge capacity, a collection of mental and physical responses that protect health during acute stress. This surge capacity helps protect you during times of “surge stress,” or increasing mental and physical demands.

    Surge stress can occur in your personal and professional life, and it is often more prevalent during the holidays. Although challenging, it can be overcome with planning, preparation, and purpose.

    1. Find What Works for You

    Initiating self-care for nurses is a deliberate activity that provides for your mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Nurses must extend to themselves the same duty of care that they extend to others. Self-care is a way of mitigating stress, replenishing empathy and compassion, and promoting safety.

    First, develop a plan that addresses your physical, mental, relational, and economic health. Identify shortfalls in those areas and key opportunities for growth. Next, make a list of interventions that may improve your health and carry them out. For example, consider regular health screenings, incorporating a nutritious diet, and exercise to improve your physical and mental resilience.

    Nurses spend much of their day at work and home caring for others. Their personal and professional life is filled with answering questions and supporting patients and families through physical and mental challenges.

    A survey by the American Nurses Association (ANA) in 2021 found 34% of nurses were not emotionally healthy and 42% were traumatized by the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly 47% of those asked said they left nursing because it had negatively affected their mental and physical health.

    The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to pay attention to self-care practices that could protect nurses’ mental and physical health. Nursing can be a traumatic field to work in since caregivers are exposed to suffering and trauma each day. Many nurses are traumatized by these events without even realizing it. Finding what works for you is the first step toward making it through the holiday season.

    2. Negotiate Holiday Time Off

    Taking care of your mental health during the holidays is especially challenging for those in healthcare. Patient care is a 24-7 business that doesn’t take a break for the holidays.

    Brian Clark, BSN, MSNA, is a certified registered nurse anesthetist and founder of United Medical Education. He advises nurses to negotiate with their managers well in advance of the holiday season for time off to celebrate with family, even if that time is short.

    “This will help you to look forward to a much-needed break and will give you time to rejuvenate. Finding time to reconnect with people and spending time with them will help you revitalize after a tiring day,” he says.

    You may not be able to negotiate time close to the holidays, so consider setting up a family celebration a week before or after the holiday. It’s often easier to get time off away from the actual holiday.

    3. Plan and Prepare

    One of the significant dangers around the holidays is the unexpected events that pop up. It is crucial that you plan and prepare for your holiday celebrations, work schedule, cooking, and entertaining without overextending yourself.

    While planning and preparing can help make the process go smoother, extra hours in your day will not magically appear. Clark believes that planning ahead and preparation are key to not only protecting nurses’ mental health but also thriving during the holiday season.

    4. Identify Areas Where You Have Control

    So much of a nurse’s schedule is out of their control. From the moment you enter the hospital and begin caring for patients until you leave, your schedule is dictated to you. Christine Patterson, DNP, is a nurse practitioner and founder of a virtual medicine practice.

    She recommends nurses identify where they can take control of their personal and professional lives. For instance, during the holiday season, you may face immense pressure to work overtime. Sometimes, overtime is mandatory. However, when you do have a choice, make sure you align your decisions with choices that support your purpose and value.

    “These choices are neither right or wrong, but staying aligned with your integrity and values helps to fortify your mental well-being. Dig in as much as you can to your purpose,” Patterson says.

    5. Connect With Friends, Family, and Pets

    Over 70% of the respondents in the 2021 ANA survey said that spending time with friends and family helped to strengthen their mental health and well-being. Finding time to connect with the people and pets that make you feel good can help lift your spirits and support your mental health.

    Roughly 71% of individuals who are stressed will turn to their friends and family for help. There are real risks with being isolated. It can increase the risk of cognitive decline, inflammation, heart disease, and infection.

    Social connection, however, gives you a sense of belonging, offers support, and helps give your life meaning and purpose.

    6. Plan Your Meals and Nutrition

    Did you know there’s such a thing as nutritional psychiatry? Harvard Health likens your brain to an expensive car. It functions best when it is fed premium fuel, rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that protect it from oxidative stress.

    However, you can also damage your brain when you eat a diet rich in processed and ultraprocessed foods, such as those you’d find in a convenience store. Refined sugars trigger insulin production and promote inflammation and oxidative stress. This is crucial since multiple studies have also found an association between eating a processed diet and worsening symptoms of depression.

    Start paying attention to how you feel after eating processed foods. Consider going clean for several weeks. This means cutting out all processed foods and sugar. You may be surprised at how good you feel. Patterson also recommends ensuring your body has enough magnesium and tryptophan, which she says gets depleted when you’re under stress.

    “Focusing on fresh, colorful foods helps provide a wide array of minerals and nutrients needed for resilience,” she says.

    7. Power of the Vagus Nerve

    Patterson notes that the vagus nerve, part of the nervous system, is crucial to your mental health and well-being. It acts as a master controller and connects the environment, your gut, and your mental health. Your vagus nerve also plays a part in controlling your heart rate, urine output, and speech.

    Dysfunction can put you at high risk for high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and heart disease. Some physicians use vagus nerve stimulation to help treat seizures by placing a device inside the body to send electrical impulses to the vagus nerve.

    Several practices can help improve your vagus nerve, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and exercise. Supporting optimal function of the vagus nerve can help improve mental health, social connections, and physical well-being, Patterson says.

    “Doing things like singing, laughing, smiling, connecting with loved ones, practicing gratitude, and diaphragmatic breathing can help tune the vagus nerve to sense safety and bring the body into a state of well-being,” Patterson says.

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Brian Clark, BSN, MSNA

    Brian Clark, BSN, MSNA

    Brian Clark is a certified registered nurse anesthetist and founder of United Medical Education. He noticed a lack of instructional material on the internet on important emergency life-saving techniques and decided to do something about it. He founded United Medical Education in an attempt to provide free, clear, and comprehensive education and certification for students.

    Portrait of Christine Patterson, DNP

    Christine Patterson, DNP

    Christine Patterson is a licensed nurse practitioner and founder of a virtual practice called Vital Journey Wellness focused on helping individuals recover from stress, burnout, or trauma using natural techniques. After experiencing her own health issues from trauma and burnout, she sought solutions to improve her well-being. She is a believer in self-autonomy and empowerment through knowledge, communication, and choice. Her practice is built on these pillars.