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Nursing School Stress: How To Keep Stress in Check

Published on: July 7, 2022

nurse checking an IV

Few fields are as personally gratifying as nursing. Yes, this career path can be challenging, but nurses have proven again and again that they're up to the task. In fact, many thrive when faced with significant career challenges.

The appeal of nursing is evident in a growing body of research, in which nurses at all levels report high career satisfaction. Even in the midst of unprecedented shortages, resignations and burnout, respondents from the 2021 Medscape Nurse Career Satisfaction Report remain thrilled that their chosen career path gives them the opportunity to make a discernible difference where it matters most.

Nursing itself may have a lot to offer, but the academic component can still be daunting. While college students across all disciplines report concerning levels of stress, this is especially obvious in nursing. Below, we explain why nursing students feel stressed and what they can do about it.

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Why Is Nursing School So Stressful?

A variety of factors play heavily into nursing student stress levels. Some of these concerns are directly caused by academic programs and clinical experiences, while others are simply exacerbated by students' busy schedules.

Cost of Nursing School

Between tuition, textbooks and housing, students from all disciplines struggle to keep their budgets in check. Most are concerned about these costs, which make the already elevated stakes of schooling seem higher. If they're unable to score lucrative positions, students worry that their years of schooling will have been wasted.

The financial constraints of nursing school are in line with many other healthcare programs and may even be offset by the ability for nurses to swiftly enter the field as LPNs or RNs — and work their way up to the BSN, NP and APRN levels. Still, the cost of schooling weighs heavily on the minds of many students.

Less Time for Rest and Relaxation

Most college students report feeling busy, but this rings especially true in nursing school. Between lectures, clinical experiences and everyday studying, nurses simply don't have a lot of time to relax.

The expedited nature of many nursing programs means that aspiring healthcare professionals can rise through the ranks quickly — but to feel fully prepared for new positions, they need to work tirelessly.

Many are surprised to discover that their schedule actually eases up after graduation — that is, if they only pursue work at this point. In reality, however, many attend nursing school while working full-time, so they simply don't have the ability to relax.

Why Is Stress Management for Nurses So Important?

Some stress as a nurse is not only natural, but necessary. Stress is one of the most powerful motivators; harnessed properly, it can convince us to take action when we might otherwise rest easy.

The cliché "everything in moderation" certainly applies — and with nursing students, stress is rarely moderate. Often, the culprit is a lack of stress management, which nursing students may struggle to prioritize. The following are among the most compelling arguments for making a greater effort to manage stress.

Unmanaged Stress Negatively Impacts Your Health

As stress starts to spiral out of control, it has a discernible impact on both physical and mental health. Examples of the harmful effects of stress abound, but the following are among the most common:

  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Digestive problems
  • Reduced immune function
  • Substance abuse
  • Greater risk of anxiety and depression

These issues may not be immediately evident, but they will eventually begin to take their toll. By the time you've graduated, your physical and mental reserves could be tapped.

Given the demands of the healthcare industry, it's worth your while to achieve peak condition before you take on new professional challenges. The improved physical and mental health that accompany a reasonable stress load will make it far easier to handle everyday workplace demands.

Stress Can Impair Your Cognitive Function

Stress has a way of spiraling in academic settings: worried about deadlines and difficult coursework, students find themselves unable to properly focus on their studies — so their initial fears lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The ill effects of stress on cognitive function are well-documented. For example, an analysis of the Framingham Heart Study reveals that, as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase, memory impairments and even reduced brain volumes result. For nurses, this may manifest in the inability to recall key facts about anatomy, treatments and other essentials. Stressed nurses may also struggle to apply what they've learned in a clinical setting.

Stress Can Cause Burnout

You feel passionate about healthcare now, but can that passion survive the rigors of nursing school? Left unchecked, stress could lead to burnout, causing you to feel far more ambivalent about academic and professional opportunities that you once found exciting.

Research reveals that burnout is closely tied to poor academic outcomes — including not only worse performance on exams, but also, higher dropout rates among previously committed students. Even if you stay enrolled and maintain excellent grades, burnout will mar what could have otherwise been an exciting entry into your dream career.

How Can Graduate Nursing Students Manage Stress?

With so much to learn in such a limited span of time, it's only natural for graduate nursing students to occasionally feel stressed. Properly managed, however, this stress could actually enhance the nursing school experience rather than cause the many ill effects referenced above.

No single approach will prove equally effective in all situations, but the following are among the best techniques for keeping stress levels in check:

Prioritize Self-Care

Nurses and nursing students spend their days providing medical, emotional and spiritual care to vulnerable patients. At the end of a long shift or clinical rotation, they naturally feel tapped out — and still, many report that they struggle to extend the same care to themselves that they're so quick to provide others.

As the cliché about sharpening the saw explains, it's far more difficult to reach your full potential when you never pause to address clear sources of stagnation. For nursing students, this means taking the occasional break to recharge. You may be surprised to discover that, once you've given yourself the care you deserve, your performance sees a dramatic improvement.

Self-care means different things to different people, so it's up to you to determine what form this will take. If you thrive in social settings, effective care might involve ditching your studies for an evening, so you can reconnect with your friends.

If physical fitness is a priority, you may feel your best after a long run or bike ride. Nearly everybody can benefit from yoga, massage or meditation, all of which provide the immediate sense of relaxation that busy nursing students so desperately need.

Another take on self-care that definitely applies to graduate-level nursing students? Learning to say no. As a busy student, your capacity for taking on extra obligations may be lower than it was during other phases of life. It's perfectly fine to scale back for now.

Practice saying no to small asks. Examples could include refusing to attend a party when you're too tired or passing on joining a committee or club that you don't find compelling. The more often you flex your assertive muscles, the easier saying no will become. Not only will this ease your stress as a nursing student, it will help you develop the confident attitude you need to succeed as a nurse.

Study Smarter, Not Harder 

You won't win any awards for spending the most time with your head buried in a textbook. Yes, you'll need to make a significant commitment to your studies, but you can expedite the process by determining early on which strategies produce the best results.

This will differ from one nursing student to the next, so you may need to experiment with a variety of strategies before you find something effective. Many nursing students are able to optimize their limited study time by utilizing these helpful tactics:

  • Make an active effort to notice how theoretical principles from the classroom play out in your clinical experiences or day-to-day efforts at your nursing job. This will personalize your studying efforts and make otherwise vague concepts easier to understand.
  • Work with a study group. We'll touch on the value of a strong support system later, but remember: even if your study group members never become close friends, they'll still hold you accountable and provide a valuable perspective on important concepts.
  • Build relationships with instructors and advisors. Struggling to master a difficult concept? Why not go straight to the source for insight? Nursing instructors are eager to support a new generation of healthcare professionals, so they'll go out of their way to ensure you're fully equipped with the insight you need.

Create a Support System

A strong support system is non-negotiable, as it provides a much-needed outlet during tough times — and an opportunity to celebrate small victories with those who know exactly how hard you've worked.

Ideally, your support system will consist not only of friends and family members from outside your nursing bubble, but also, plenty of fellow nursing students and professionals who share your passion.

As we've discussed, these close confidants are often found within study groups. Nursing organizations and even the workplace can also be great places to build rapport.

Take initiative and reach out to see if any of your fellow nurses or nursing students want to meet for coffee, happy hour, or even a short walk. You may be surprised to find that these newfound friends are also desperate for connection — they were simply waiting for someone to make the first move.

Take Control of Your Mindset

A proactive approach can do wonders for your mindset as you navigate the most stressful aspects of graduate school. You simply don't have the luxury of taking time for wallowing.

If you sense that you're beginning to spiral, take small steps to get your mindset to a more productive place. This could be as simple as taking a few minutes to meditate. Some nursing students also find that affirmations or vision boards help when they feel overwhelmed.

Take Advantage of Other Stress Management Resources for Nursing Students

A variety of stress management resources provide valuable insight into the daily obstacles you face as a nursing student. Even a few moments of feedback can make a world of difference, particularly when you find yourself stuck in a negative mindset. These resources are especially helpful:

Online Nursing Communities

Do you need an instant source of advice or commiseration? Both can be found in abundant supply online. A variety of communities cater to all types of nursing students and professionals.

Whether you watch YouTube videos, chat on Discord, or find new friends on social media, you should have no trouble connecting online. Replace your usual aimless scrolling with targeted outreach within online nursing communities, such as the following:

Books and Podcasts

As a busy nursing student, you might feel skeptical about your ability to tackle yet another book or podcast. The time you dedicate to stress mitigation will be well-rewarded, however, and there are few resources better for your mindset and mental health than these favorites:

Husson University: Your Opportunity to Thrive as a Nursing Student

If you're ready to take the next step in your nursing education but are also determined to avoid the pitfalls of excessive stress, look to Husson University for rigorous, yet balanced training. Our online graduate nursing programs offer high-level instruction, a flexible online format, but with an emphasis on stress management and mental health.

Several targeted online MSN options are available at Husson, including:

As a nursing student, there's no need to compromise on your mental health or peace of mind. You can have it all, as we'll demonstrate at Husson University.

Contact us today to learn more about our Master of Science in Nursing programs — and to discover your best options for pursuing a career you love.

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