Career advice

When stress gets too much: how to take control of what threatens to overwhelm you

Find out where your tipping point is and learn to step away, even if only in your head

Survival guide for nurses feeling crushed by pressures at work or at home

It’s too easy to keep pushing through the stress, but stop – you need to break the pressure cycle Picture: iStock

Have you ever had one of those weeks where everything just gets too much? Every shift is exhausting, doing your best never feels enough and there’s barely enough time to go to the toilet let alone take a break.

At home, the housework is mounting up, bills need to be paid and family members want attention and reassurance.

Hello panic, goodbye rational thinking

Nurses are experts at juggling, but even with the best planning and preparation, sometimes the energy required to keep the metaphorical balls in the air is more than you can give.

‘No matter how much determination you have, you cannot function effectively if you are over your tipping point. Patients won’t get the best care and you risk making clinical errors’

For me, it’s like a pressure valve building up inside; panic can quickly set in and rational thinking goes out the window. I’m no use to anyone at this point, including myself, but I still push on as I don’t want to let anyone down.

The good news is that this pattern can be changed; by recognising your own ‘tipping point’ and then pressing the pause button, you can learn to manage these overwhelming feelings.

Nurses are expert at juggling demands, but sometimes they are just too much Picture: iStock

Stress is not always a negative – but too much of it stops you from thinking straight

Feeling overwhelmed does not make you bad at your job, it simply makes you human. The year 2020 has not been easy for anyone, especially those working on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, so don’t add guilt to your already overwhelming emotional mix.

Stress is not always a bad thing, and the right amount of it can help you function and perform well. But too much stress or pressure and you are unable to think clearly or make effective decisions, which can lead to illness or burnout.

Learn to identify your tipping point, when stress starts to compromise how you function

The crucial thing is to recognise where your tipping point is – the point where your perceived levels of stress start to work against you.

‘Although it may not be possible physically to step away in the middle of a shift, you can still pause and take a few deep breaths’

No matter how much willpower or determination you have, you cannot function effectively if you are over your tipping point. Your patients won’t get the best care, your colleagues will likely notice something is wrong, and you risk making clinical errors.

Everyone has their tipping point – work out where yours is Picture: iStock

Learning to recognise what your tipping point looks and feels like can take time, but it is an essential way to avoid becoming overwhelmed. So next time you feel the pressure mounting, try to pay attention to what you are thinking and feeling.

5 tips for regaining control when you’re feeling overwhelmed

Press pause, and if you can’t stop what you’re doing, at least take a deep breath Picture: iStock

Next time you start to feel overwhelmed, take control by taking action. Here are five steps to help you do this:

  • Step away whether physically or metaphorically. You need to break your chain of thinking, so if you cannot take a few moments away from your work, stop what you are doing and take a deep breath. Developing a mantra* can also help
  • Remind yourself you have felt this way before and you will be okay
  • Allow yourself some leeway When I was running marathons, I gave myself permission to take a mile out by walking. I never took it, but the relief of knowing it was there gave me a sense of control and helped me to keep going
  • Re-prioritise Work out what you need to do right now and what can wait
  • Ask for help Can a colleague help ease your workload? If you feel you are struggling, talk to your manager, friends and family, and get support from mental health services if you need it

Learn to step away, or at least pause, if you feel overwhelmed

Stress is a personal thing – what may be ‘too much’ for me may not be an issue for somebody else. Gaining control over what tips you over the edge is much more effective than beating yourself up for not being as capable as the person next to you.

When I sense I am close to tipping over, I have to step away, regardless of how busy I am. This can be hard when there is so much to do, but anxiety and a feeling of being overwhelmed can build up and take over if you don’t press the pause button.

The more you have to do, the more you stay where you are and keep pushing forward. But by taking just a few moments to break this vicious circle, you can reframe what is going on.

Although it may not be possible physically to step away in the middle of a shift, you can still pause and take a few deep breaths or repeat a mantra* – a phrase that breaks your thinking pattern and allows you to step away, even if only mentally. This enables you to return to what you were doing feeling stronger and more able to cope.

Mandy Day-Calder is a life/health coach with a nursing background. She runs a healthcare training company