Crystal Gustafson
Crystal Gustafson
August 14, 2017 - 4 min read

How To Control Your Emotions As A Nurse

When people think of nursing, the first words that usually come to mind are blood, urine, stool, vomit, and sputum. People often wonder how we do our jobs. What they don’t realize is that dealing with bodily fluids is the easiest part of this gig; it’s the emotional side that gets to you.

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In my opinion, the most challenging aspect of being a nurse is managing your own emotions and those of complex patients and their families. Managing emotions was not taught to us in nursing school and probably wasn’t a part of our nursing orientation either.

What you may have noticed is that managing your emotions does not come easy, at least not to everyone. It is a learned behavior that also comes with experience.

Develop Your “EI”

The ability to identify and manage your emotions and the emotions of others is known as emotional intelligence or EI.

According to a study conducted in Boston with more than 20,000 executives, it was found that EI was twice as important as technical skills and cognitive abilities in determining leadership ability.

It was also found that successful staff nurses tend to have average or above average EI. Because the evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that developing your EI is essential to becoming a happy and successful nurse, it is essential that we take the steps necessary to get in touch with our emotions.

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Identify Your Emotions

The first step to becoming emotionally intelligent is to be able to identify your own emotions and know what your “buttons” are.

If you know that drug-seeking patients tend to get on your nerves and you find in report that your next patient has drug-seeking behavior, then now would be a good time to recognize the need to calm and prepare yourself prior to entering that patient’s room.

Maybe take some deep breaths. Some evidence shows that something as simple as smiling at a patient can lighten the mood.

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Recognize Emotions In Others

The next step would be recognizing emotions in others.

If you walk into a room and the patient who is normally talkative, is instead being quiet, has a tense posture, or is fidgeting, these may be signs that the patient is angry.

Instead of taking this anger personally, it is important to investigate the source of the anger by listening. Recognize if you are becoming defensive. Maybe you are tense or breathing faster.

Take this moment to take a few deep breaths to calm yourself and listen. After they are finished venting, acknowledge their feelings, express regret about the situation by apologizing, validate their complaint and ask the patient what you can do for them.

Work On Empathy

The third step would be developing empathy. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings”.

As an ICU nurse, if I actually experienced everyone else’s feelings every time, I would be emotionally exhausted. The idea here is to convey to the patient that you understand their situation even if you don’t necessarily feel it in your heart or agree with it.

I recently had an experience during an orientation where a patient’s sister stated that she did not want a new nurse to take care of her sister. The nurse who was mentoring me sat down with the sister and listened to her story. Apparently, this patient has been in and out of the hospital multiple times since she was a child and her sister was right there with her. It wasn’t anything personal towards me, it was just the sister protecting her loved one.

I have found the best way to be empathetic is to imagine a scenario that truly puts you in the other person’s shoes. What if that was you in that bed or someone you loved? If this is difficult for you to imagine it may be wise to use “scripting” to help you find phrases that convey empathy such as “if I were in your position, I would feel the same way.”

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Handling Emotions: An Ongoing Process

If you have a patient that is just too much to handle, it’s okay to cry – just do it in the break room. And it’s perfectly fine to just walk away.

Let your charge nurse know the situation and use it as a learning experience. Your nursing profession is a long journey full of plenty of opportunities to practice your patience and improve your emotional intelligence. Take the time now to research ways to improve your EI.

Find a leader or mentor you can observe interacting in emotionally challenging situations. Identify behaviors that you need to work on and practice self-awareness both at work and in your personal life. Seek feedback from others who have experience dealing with complex patients and actively seek to unlearn old behaviors and replace them with new ones.

Learning to recognize and manage your emotions not only benefits your professional life but your personal life as well. Finding happiness in nursing is not impossible. With a goal in mind and a well thought out plan, you can achieve nursing Nirvana.

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