Maintaining Mental and Emotional Health as a Healthcare Traveler

An article by Leah Sterneker, LPN Traveler

As travelers, we are encouraged to take care of ourselves physically by eating a well-balanced diet, getting 8 hours sleep, drinking water, wearing compression socks, etc. But what steps should we take to maintain mental health? Healthcare workers are faced with unique issues within any given shift including death, angry patients and doctors, family members and even bullying. Dealing with these issues can lead to an unbelievable amount of stress. There will inevitably be days that we want to cry, wondering if we made the right decisions or taking to heart something not so pleasant that someone said. We are human, and being insulted when you are trying to do your job makes you wonder, “Why did I get into this field anyway?” Tending to our mental health is key to handling these moments of crisis.

Fight Stress

Since getting into nursing and traveling, I have found yoga to be beneficial. Big cities typically have yoga studios that offer a wide variety of classes. There are different levels of yoga and various focus areas including core strengthening, meditation, flexibility, etc. My favorite class experience so far, included laying under a hot blanket and being told to let your body take a nap but to simultaneously keep listening to the instructor. By the end of the class, physically I felt like I took a nap, but the instructor also led us through focusing on all the areas of my body. As a result, I was able to shut off all the worry that comes with the job. I was refocused and ready for my next string of shifts.

Yoga meditation is also regaled as an effective way to deal with stress. By focusing on breathing and one particular thought/object you shut off all other thoughts, which should put you in a calm state of mind. Yoga studios often offer introduction to meditation classes for those who are interested in learning the technique.

Going on long walks while listening to music or podcasts can also help alleviate stress. For however long you are walking, you can focus on the beauty around you while listening to something that enriches you. I take my dog on a walk every morning after my shift and we go to areas that make me think of home. I look for views of trees and water. Being able to hear the birds chirping and the water running over rocks takes me back to being at home on the farm, which is my happy place. To sit on a rock by a creek that is surrounded by trees and take in the sounds, makes all the other stresses in my life disappear for awhile.

Talk it Out

Everyone deserves the chance to talk to someone where it feels safe, where you won’t be judged, and where there is no chance of retaliation. We are in a career that is demanding. Being a traveler, you don’t have that camaraderie with coworkers you would if you were a staff clinician. Your assignments often take you into an environment that is short staffed and stretched thin, which can mean short fuses and high emotional tensions. You want to be careful about what you say on the job. So, remember that you have a therapist right at your fingertips anytime you need one, with websites like Talkspace. Whether you need to talk to them about the difficulties of traveling or a problem with a coworker, it is confidential with no chance of backlash. I have found that I end up talking about things that I didn’t even realize were bothering me, and it can be an effective way to clear your mind. I think there is still a stigma that only people with severe issues go to therapy, but this just isn’t true. I went to a therapy session before I took the NCLEX to clear my mind. I had lost my grandmother during the program and lost my grandpa a week after graduation. Just going for that hour helped clear my mind and get me refocused on the big picture.

If therapy isn’t your thing, then pray. Sometimes just talking out loud to God can make you feel so much better. Life in general can be overwhelming, but in a field like nursing where we see heartbreak on a regular basis, it’s natural to question things. Praying can help with the burden that we carry and unload some of the stresses in our lives. We may not realize that we have so much on our minds until we start. It can be very cathartic, especially if you end up crying, which is ok. Sometimes you just need a good cry. This job is hard. Crying doesn’t make you weak, it gives you an outlet as a compassionate human.

Relax

As a traveler, it’s not always possible to take a nice hot soak in the tub. But if you can, great! Turn on your favorite music, get the bubbles, pour a glass of wine and soak away. However, if you can’t, there are other ways such as themed coloring books, reading, naps, getting a massage, playing a game on your phone, or finding something that helps relax you so you can go back to the demands of this field.

There is a huge trend of themed coloring books that are made to help calm you. They have intricate patterns where you can get lost in coloring them. They also have nursing specific coloring books that can make you laugh because you are coloring in your frustrations on the job. It’s everything you might be thinking but may not be able to say at work. Coloring for an hour is a simple escape that allows the creative juices to flow. If you want to go a step above coloring, find a painting class to go to one evening with a friend or coworker. These classes paint one painting a night and the instructor teaches it to you step by step. The classes play fun music and encourage interaction. They also have instructors walking around to help you if you need it. Plus, many of these classes allow BYOB, so it can be a fun night out without having to go to a crowded bar.

Reading has always been a great way to relax. With eBooks, you have millions of books right at your fingertips, which is ideal for traveling. Whether you read a chapter before bed or read a couple of chapters on a rainy day, reading can help take your mind off the job.

Don’t neglect nap time. When you are mentally exhausted, lay down and take a nap. It not only recharges the body, it recharges the mind. And honestly, if I ever find a workplace that encourages naptime during the shift, I will never leave that place. As nurses, we are usually at work late, picking up shifts or having to go in for staff meetings. We survive on caffeine. Sleeping 8 hours is a luxury. A 30 minute nap during the day can be a blessing from above, so take it if you can. Being crabby and short tempered with others because you are tired will overshadow your amazing nurse skills.

Leah visits the mountains
One of Leah’s favorite days spent while in Colorado, was going to Garden of the Gods with her childhood friend Jessi who came to visit.

Take a Day Off

As a traveler, you are well aware that you’ve been hired to solve a staffing shortage. Sometimes, however, you just need a day off because you are mentally tired and your body is exhausted. If you don’t abuse it, taking a day off now and then is ok. We are away from all the comforts of home. It’s not always easy to feel rested for the next shift when you are living in a hotel or have noisy neighbors in your Airbnb.

Traveling is like a vacation in the beginning, but by week 10 you are so ready to be at home and just decompress. Healthcare traveling is an amazing opportunity and experience, but it is also emotionally draining. Your emotional state can have a negative effect on your patient care or cause you to say something to a coworker that can get you in trouble. Use your best judgement to decide when you need time and space away from work to recharge.

As clinicians, we have this ability to leave a lasting impression on people. We see life’s beginning and hold someone’s hand as life is ending. We get thanked and shown appreciation, but also yelled at and made to feel like we know nothing all in the same day. We have to be advocates for people that don’t have a voice. We have to fight when we see our patient’s needs being ignored. We spend hours on our feet without a break, eating when we can, surviving on coffee and praying for strength. We hold in our tears when something bad happens because there our other people that need us. It takes a toll, but it’s our calling. The worst thing we can do is become complacent and not care. That is why it is not only important to take care of our mental health as staff nurses but as travelers when we are away from our normal support system. We have people’s lives in our hands every day. Find what works for you to refuel and de-stress.  Don’t forget that you are human, and not a machine!

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