Improving Your Mental Health as a Nursing Student

Nursing students discussing mental health
If you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression as a nursing student, know that you’re not alone. As nurses ourselves, we understand that with so much information to learn, demanding clinical shifts, and high standards of excellence, it can sometimes feel like you’re drowning. Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do to reduce common stressors and improve your mental health going forward.
Nursing students discussing mental health
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Common Stressors for Nursing Students

While college and other degree programs can be stressful in their own right, nursing students face unique situations and demands that add additional pressure. Understanding what they are is the first step to reducing the negative effects they can have on your mental health.

Demanding Coursework

Medical-surgical nursing (med-surg), pathophysiology, and pharmacology are a few of the more difficult classes you’ll take as a nursing student due to the amount of information you’ll need to memorize. You’ll also have hours of labs that most other degree paths don’t experience. All of this together makes for a demanding course schedule that can quickly weigh you down if you approach it unprepared.

Nursing School Clinicals

Clinicals in nursing school are time-consuming, challenging, and oftentimes stressful. Shifts typically last between 4-6 or 8-12 hours, and require you to be “on” a vast majority of the time. Because you’ll be working with real patients, you’ll be expected to minimize mistakes and maintain a friendly attitude in an unfamiliar environment. The experience is exciting, but can cause high stress levels for obvious reasons.

Nursing Shortages

It’s no secret that COVID-19 created a number of problems for healthcare professionals, but nursing shortages were already a challenge that the pandemic only intensified. This has trickled into classroom and clinical settings, leading to fewer experienced clinical instructors and tighter regulations on clinical placements (making it harder to get the experience you need to graduate).

Work-Life Balance

As a nursing student, it can seem impossible to maintain a healthy work-life balance given your course load, clinicals, and everyday obligations. With so much to do, the first things to be neglected are usually sleep, personal relationships, care for family members, and self-care. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to let this stressor build up over time and impact your day-to-day experience as a nursing student.

Signs You’re Experiencing Burnout

In many cases, nursing students don’t notice the daily stressors, coping mechanisms, and habits that gradually worsen their mental health. Here are several signs to pay attention to that could indicate you’re experiencing unsustainable levels of stress, anxiety, or burnout:

  • Lack of energy or exhaustion, even on your days off
  • Feeling like you’re falling behind
  • Fewer positive interactions with friends and family members
  • Disinterest in your favorite hobbies and activities
  • Increased cynicism toward nursing school or clinicals
  • Participation in coping mechanisms (e.g., substance abuse, compulsive shopping, overeating, etc.)
  • Feeling excessively anxious, worried, or guilty

If you find yourself checking any of these boxes, try to take a step back and develop a self-care plan. Many students don’t and, as a result, neglect relationships, struggle to prepare for tests, question their decision to be a nurse, and spiral further into despair.

It can be hard to disconnect and change our habits; it can feel like focusing on ourselves puts us further behind; but it doesn’t need to be this way.

Top 5 Self-Care Tips for Nursing Students

By creating and maintaining a self-care routine, it becomes easier to manage the stressors that lead many nursing students to develop poor mental health. Here are some activities, habits, and actions to improve your overall well-being:

1. Create a Support Network of Nursing Students

If you’re having a hard time in nursing school or clinicals, it’s very likely that someone you know is, too. By creating a network or group of peers you can confide in, and checking in on one another, even your most difficult moments in nursing school will become easier. Lean on them when you need it and let them lean on you.

2. Schedule Time to Disconnect

Even if it’s just 10 minutes between classes or an hour you set aside each day, make time for yourself and detach from your obligations. This could be as simple as going for a walk through the park, working out, reading a book, or meditating. We all need “me” time, and making that time each day can greatly improve your mental health.

3. Work on Improving Your Lifestyle

Stress eating, lack of sleep, and substance abuse (like binge drinking and excessive smoking) are common habits that many nursing students form as they try to keep up with their obligations. Make a point to get at least 7 hours of sleep, eat healthier foods, and do something active. It can take time and practice to form good habits, but they’ll increase your energy levels and make your day-to-day life easier.

4. Practice Effective Time Management & Organization

Time management and organization may not sound like self-care, but they make it easier to participate in self-care. By planning a daily schedule, you can figure out where you’re wasting your time and how you can make better use of it. Similarly, when your documents and notes are organized, you can work more efficiently and free up additional time. Try making a planner and setting aside time for your classes, homework, studying, and self-care activities.

5. Improve Your Resilience with a Growth Mindset

Your mindset alone can also make a big difference. Experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety can quickly create a negative mindset that results in a feedback loop. For example:

You’re anxious about an exam and think you’ll do poorly, which leads you to question yourself during the exam and actually perform poorly. This then carries over into future assignments and exams.

Instead, practice developing a growth mindset.

A growth mindset is all about believing your abilities can be improved through hard work, dedication, and advice from others.

By simply tweaking the way you think and view problems, you can completely change your performance as a nursing student. Using our previous example:

You’re anxious about an exam, but know the material is manageable if you create a study plan. You dedicate time to studying each day before your exam and have greater confidence during your exam, leading to success.

A growth mindset will help you throughout your schooling and career as you tackle problems you haven’t experienced before. Instead of worrying about a problem, you’ll eventually approach it as an opportunity to learn and grow as a nurse, “I may not know what to do yet, but I have the resources and ability to figure it out.”

Mental Health in Nursing: Embracing a Healthy Future

Declining mental health among nursing students is a problem that educators and school administrators are trying to address, but the best way to overcome it is by taking your future into your own hands one day at a time. This starts with taking a step back and reflecting. Ask yourself:

Are you treating yourself with the same amount of care and compassion you’d give to a patient?

It’s never easy to change our habits, but by taking a moment to breathe, recognizing the stressors in your life, and creating a self-care plan, anything is possible.

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