By Renee DuShane, RN
I remember saying to myself, “just get up and leave!” before the door opened. Get out of the therapist’s office, go down the office park stairs, and leave, never return. Seeing a therapist came with an overwhelming somatic discomfort that I could only describe as inadequacy. I’d felt it often in the first six months of my nursing career, leading me to this velvet chair once again.
A nurse with anxiety felt more like the punch line for a coffee mug than a badge for my scrub top. Pediatric patient turned healthcare professional and I couldn’t manage a little anxiety. The fear of failing, even at treatment, became too much for me. So, I politely completed an introduction session with a therapist, and didn’t return for another visit.
During my first year working, I figured I was suffering from novice nurse jitters. I attributed my need to arrive at work forty-five minutes early to dedication. Found myself checking, and double checking, everything I did. Lying awake at night (which often for me was actually daytime), wondering if I did something wrong during my shift. In time, I would find that this insecurity and panic was not helping my patients as much as I thought. Anxiety clouded my judgment and focus. I found myself feeling as if I was still a student being graded. Looking for reassurance that I was qualified for the job and the license that I’d already earned.
The responsibility of nursing was incredible, but also felt incredibly heavy. It left me feeling so tired and yet, I couldn’t sleep it off. Trust me, I tried. It quickly became evident that my anxiety was going to cause me to burn out before I even hit three years as a nurse! I had worked too hard to earn my place among the healthcare community to go down without giving it my all.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t something we learned how to talk about in school. We document what we do, but leave out how we feel about it. Apparently, the assessment for the nurse at change of shift had slipped everyone’s mind. I was starting to believe nobody had figured out how to balance life as a nurse with anxiety yet. So, I started talking about it.
Talking to co-workers brought sudden relief, as if I had been carrying a secret around that everyone already knew. Quickly, I discovered I was not the first nurse with a mental health diagnosis to gravitate toward this field, and I doubt I will be the last. As professionals and peers, I valued other nurses’ advice. I began asking how they managed their anxious thoughts and behaviors on and off shift. The responses were unanimous and simple: ask for help, find someone to talk to. As a nurse, I knew exactly what that meant. As a friend, I knew they were right. I found myself back in therapy, and this time, I continued attending!
As a way of easing my relationship with anxiety at work, I connected with other nurses who were very vocal about their experiences in the profession (the good, the bad, the gross, etc.). I’ve talked to incredible nurses across specialties and listened to their stories. We have been able to talk openly about our shared anxiety experiences. (Thank you, internet!) I am a stronger nurse for what they’ve taught me, and I don’t mean clinical skill.
My experience with anxiety has inspired growth in my career and improvement in my practice. I never could have anticipated this outlet in the days it was keeping me from doing my job. If these experiences sound familiar to you, I hope you find relief knowing it has a name and that people are talking about it. I encourage you to speak out too.