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8 ways to wind down after a long shift

April 28, 2022

As every healthcare provider knows, caregiving is rewarding but difficult work. It often involves a significant amount of mental, emotional, and physical effort and the hours can seem endless. According to a 2021 study by the American Nurses Association (ANA), nurses have continued to report increasing signs of burnout. These symptoms may exacerbate due to the ongoing nursing shortage and could lead to a higher workload for current nurses.

In addition to national staffing issues, the daily challenges of working at the bedside can leave any nurse feeling depleted and headed toward career fatigue. The irony is that even professional caregivers have a hard time relaxing and taking care of themselves. Thankfully, there are some small easy ways to engage in self-care—even after a long shift. Consider these seven strategies for winding down.

1. Physical activity

The thought of sweating out the stress might not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, cardiovascular exercise can improve your sense of well-being by increasing the happy hormones while turning down the ones that make you feel worn down like cortisol and adrenaline. Any form of movement can help, but repetitive exercise that  induces a meditative-like state can be especially beneficial. Some prime examples are light jogging or walking.

The mental health advantages of exercise are also well-documented. Specifically, it has been known to fight anxiety and depression in individuals. The feeling of achieving a short and refreshing workout can additionally  boost your confidence and eventually snowball into a healthy long-term habit. Consider fitting 20-30 minutes of any type of activity into your day, whether that’s gentle yoga or dancing to your favorite jams.

2. A warm meal

It’s no secret that food can have a significant impact on your health and wellness. A meal that is equally nutritionally beneficial and emotionally satisfying can be a wonderful precursor to a relaxing and restful night. The Cleveland Clinic states that adopting a Mediterranean diet may help decrease inflammation in the body and subsequently decrease cortisol levels, which become  elevated with stress. Foods that are rich in magnesium and omega-3 such as salmon, avocados, and even dark chocolate are some of the top recommended choices.

More importantly, certain foods increase stress on the body. These include alcohol, caffeine, high-sugar foods, and simple carbohydrates. Although these items can be enjoyed in moderation, consuming them in large quantities close to bedtime can detract from your quality of sleep and leave you feeling more exhausted the next day.

3. Tune in to your favorite show

Turning on your favorite TV show and settling into a comfy spot on the couch can be a great way to relax. Television can serve as an outlet to simply laugh and engage a different reality, which can be a welcome respite for the mind.

Some may argue that screen time is detrimental to your circadian rhythm because  blue light can suppress the secretion of melatonin, the hormone that aids the body in  falling asleep. Although this may be true, unwinding with an episode or two and then completely turning off all screens can be a smart strategy to optimize your sleep schedule. Another tip is to use blue light blocking glasses, which can diminish the energizing effect of screens.

4. Socialize selectively

For some, the thought of talking to another person after spending twelve hours caring for patients and their families can be exhausting. On the other hand, a well-intentioned venting session with a trusted friend may help relieve stress. The key is to talk to someone with empathy and active listening skills. Simply feeling seen and heard while sharing the day's events might be all you need to defuse the tension inside.

Remember to remain courteous by finding space in the conversation to ask your friend questions as well. If venting is not what you need, you can also call a friend for a  casual catch-up after work. End the call before arriving home so that you can also have your alone time.  

5. Playtime with pets

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), interacting with pets has been found to decrease levels of cortisol and blood pressure in individuals. Having a good cuddle session with your favorite furry friend could be the interaction you need to enter a state of play and relaxation. Animals tend to display loyalty, affection, and undivided presence to their human counterparts, which are all qualities that can greatly benefit your mental health. Maintaining the companionship of an animal can also reduce e feelings of anxiety and loneliness.

6. Deep breathing  

Beyond receiving oxygen, a lesser known benefit of deep breathing is how it affects the parasympathetic nervous system. Taking deep breaths allows your diaphragm to fully expand and contract and also helps stimulate your vagus nerve, which runs from your brainstem all the way down to your gut. A study found that the vagus nerve plays a role in everything from gut digestion and satiation to inflammation and the release of stress hormones. To activate the relaxation function of this nerve, you can try initiating deep and full breaths with longer exhales, humming, singing, or adding cold water to the neck. The human body automatically has an amazing intrinsic system in place to mitigate stress, and it doesn't require any fancy equipment or methods.

7. Hot bath

Nothing beats the feeling of melting away the tension of the day with a soothing hot bath. Drawing up a hot (or warm) bath can be a simple way to release endorphins in the same way that a body reacts to the sun’s warmth on the skin. The increased temperature may also stimulate the body to burn more calories, improve blood sugar control, and decrease inflammation.

Adding epsom salts, a crystalline form of magnesium sulfate, will take this practice to the next level by relaxing the muscles. If you’re feeling extra fancy, you could watch your favorite television show and enjoy a nice beverage while you soak.

8. Read a book

If all else fails, grab a book, dim the lights, and crawl under the sheets for a cozy night in with your favorite novel. Reading can be just as entertaining as watching a show and can help relax you enough to doze off and fall asleep quickly without the extra screen time. Learning something new or discovering an interesting historical fact is an added bonus.

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Bio: Midge Lee is a registered nurse with six years of experience in burn, trauma, emergency medicine, and intensive care. She has also dabbled in travel nursing and home health. Midge enjoys writing about a range of topics—from self-care and wellness to hospital haikus.