Self-Care: The Importance of Practicing What We Preach
Never has the concept of self-care been more necessary or vital than today as the COVID-19 virus has gripped our nation, challenging our coping abilities in mind, body, and spirit.
This is especially true for nurses who are at the battlefield frontlines every day; not just with the current pandemic but with any illness, whether at the health promotion level (prevention, teaching, or screening) to the tertiary level of care (specialized medical care).
Practicing self-care is essential to not only a nurse’s personal health, but for professional growth as well. According to the American Nurses Association’s (ANA) Code of Ethics (2017), a major directive is that “The nurse owes the same duties to self as to others, including the responsibility to preserve integrity and safety, to maintain competence, and to continue personal and professional growth.”
Simply defined, when nurses don’t put their own wellbeing first, the capacity to conserve and sustain the care for others diminishes, both in personal life and profession life. As nurses become more exhausted, fatigued, and further tense (also known as burn out), literature illustrates quality of care decreases, safety errors increase and compassion-fatigue sets in.
What is self-care? Whether defined by the American Nurses Association (ANA, 2017), World Health Organization (WHO, 2019) or the trailblazing nurse theorist Dorothea Orem and her Self-Care Theory, self-care is intentional activities we do in effort to establish and maintain health for our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. As nurses, everyday practice involves teaching and encouraging our clients and populations to understand the role of self-care, strategies and resources for promoting self-care, and maintaining care of self. So nurses are well-versed in what health promotion strategies are and their significance, yet whether nurses follow through with these teachings remains historically lacking in their own care of self.
Ask any nurse why they became a nurse, and most would include a statement that they desire to care for others. In nursing education, nursing students are taught to care for others as well as to educate individuals on the importance of self-care in order to take a more active role in their health, including nutrition, exercise, stress strategies, psychological health measures, and spiritual health.
Central to understanding self-care is that it is not just related to nutritional health or exercise. Rather, care of oneself includes multiple vital components as noted above. In other words, self-care is holistic care. This is to emphasize the need to practice ways to ensure that individuals are the ‘best you that you can be’.
Ironically, although nurses are taught and are knowledgeable about the importance of caring for oneself and health strategies, this concept doesn’t always translate into the nurse’s own self-care. Nurses do a wonderful job of placing the health, wellness, and safety of their clients well before their own needs, lacking practice in what they teach others. The level of stress that nurses experience every day in practice, handling the life of individuals from birth to death, brings an overwhelming challenge unlike any profession.
Thus, it’s understandable and critical to value ourselves by being mindful and aware of the necessity to first focus care where it belongs: the nurse-self.
The literature is rich with evidence of how nurses often don’t self-assess their personal health needs, diagnose where they are lacking in meeting their personal care needs, developing action plans to focus on their self, engage in interventions and strategies to enhance self-care and last, evaluate these components to ensure effectiveness of self-care plans are present and maintained. Just the same as nurses teach their clients and populations, ensuring a healthy lifestyle of good nutrition, adequate exercise and sleep, along with cessation of unhealthy habits such as smoking and alcohol are strategies to care for physical well-being.
Healthy coping mechanisms for stress are critical for the wellbeing of nurses. Finding outlets and approaches to deal with stress are individualized. Research suggests effective and sound coping mechanisms may include meditation/relaxation techniques, reflection, music, outdoor activities, support groups, socialization, spa day, yoga, aromatherapy, guided imagery, pet therapy, and so many more.
It is an understatement to say self-care is important in the life of a nurse. Rather, it is critical, especially in the current landscape of healthcare. Fighting at the frontlines to save lives equates to insurmountable stress for nurses. Strongly encouraging nurses to participate in self-care activities to preserve the wonderful attributes and contributions nurses have and provide each day is essential to maintaining quality, safety, and competent care to others.
Take the opportunity today to thank a nurse and encourage that nurse to think of themselves first!