How To Deal With Overwhelm

May 26, 2020 4 min read

How To Deal With Overwhelm

 One of the biggest struggles in my nursing career has been dealing with overwhelm. You’re probably familiar with the feeling: your mind racing a mile a minute, feeling paralyzed by the amount of things that are screaming for your attention, while your emotions bubble up inside of you with nowhere to go.

I started my nursing career on a fast-paced telemetry floor where I would have up to 4-5 patients at a time - managing titratable drips, post-procedure monitoring, and dealing with all that comes with being a med-surg nurse. 

I vividly remember a day where I had four patients and I felt like I just could not keep up. I was drowning in the abyss of call bells, passing meds, managing drips, and getting elderly patients to the bathroom. I was on the verge of tears as I was told that I was getting an admit on a drip as a fifth patient. Minutes before my admit arrived, I ran for the stairwell and burst into tears. I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t know what to do other than cry. 

Sound familiar? 

I now work in a CVICU, and let me tell you - the overwhelm didn’t just go away because I switched units. I may not have five patients pushing their call bell or needing to use the bathroom, but I do have one or two really sick patients where it feels like there’s a million things to keep track of and one wrong move could have a profound impact on their life. 

As time has gone on, I’ve become more familiar with this panicky overwhelm that sneaks out of nowhere and overtakes my system. I’ve started learning tips and tricks that have helped me manage my overwhelm and the paralyzing anxiety that comes right with it. 

Here’s the top three things I’ve learned: 

1. It's ok to ask for help.

The first thing that I do when I notice that I’m feeling like there’s too much to do and not enough time is I ask for help. For a long time, I was afraid that asking for help meant admitting that I wasn’t a good nurse. That I couldn’t do it all and that I wasn’t capable of handling it. Now, I know that asking for help stops my overwhelm in its tracks - and it makes me a better nurse. Not being overwhelmed means I’m not paralyzed with anxiety and my brain can actually function. Asking for help means safer care for my patients. 

I’ve also learned that when asking for help, I need to be specific. Instead of saying "I don't know" when someone asks me if I need anything, I ask a coworker to draw some labs or call the pharmacy for me. I let my charge nurse know that I'm going to need help with an admit or that I'm not super familiar with something. Asking for help takes small things off my plate, allowing me to relax a little. 

2. Taking breaks makes me a better nurse.

I’ll never forget a day I had as a new nurse, when I felt so overwhelmed with my patient load that I didn’t feel like I could take a lunch break. I was, yet again, on the verge of tears. My patients wouldn’t stop calling, a doctor had just snapped at me, and all the charting I had to do was piling up. A more senior nurse came up to me, and said “Give me your phone and go take a lunch.” I will always remember this nurse because she taught me something so important: Taking your break will make you a better nurse. I went to lunch, took some much-needed deep breaths, and when I came back, I felt like I could function again. 

Now, sometimes taking a full-on break in the middle of chaos isn’t exactly feasible. When that happens, I remind myself to stop and take deep breaths. I breathe in deeply through my nose, hold it, and exhale out through my mouth, which helps calm down my nervous system before I continue on. 

3. Dealing with my thoughts is crucial.

Every single time I get overwhelmed, negative thoughts creep right in with the paralyzing anxiety. “I’m not enough, I’ll never get this done, I shouldn’t be at this job, I’m not good enough at this, I can’t do it all” are all thoughts that have run through my head during times of feeling overwhelmed. Once I’ve recognized how I’m feeling and have taken a few deep breaths, I think of one good thing that I can repeat to myself. Something like: 

I can do hard things. 

I am capable of this. 

My best is good enough. 

I am a human doing the best that I can. 

I simply repeat this in my head when negative thoughts threaten to come in, and continue repeating it as I continue on with my tasks. This may seem simple or silly, but one of the most debilitating things about feeling overwhelmed is the sense of being defeated. Running one simple mantra through my head keeps those pesky negative feelings from overpowering my brain. 

I still struggle with feeling overwhelmed sometimes, just like anybody else - but having these tools in my toolbox when I’m in an overwhelming moment have helped me immensely. I hope that these few tips help you navigate your own feelings of overwhelm and help you create solutions of your own! 

About the Author: 

Julianna Foster, RN, BSN

Julianna is the resident copywriter + community coordinator here at Nurses Inspire Nurses. She’s a CVICU nurse and writer with a passion for helping other nurses feel less alone. On her days off, you can find her reading at a coffee shop, cooking with her fiance, or getting outside in her home city of Austin, TX.

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