Career advice

When work triggers painful emotions

Switching off from patients is not a good idea, but neither is being at the mercy of your feelings. Mandy Day-Calder explains how to achieve an emotional balance that works for you and your patients.
Emotional_Balance-iStock.jpg

Switching off from patients is not a good idea, but neither is being at the mercy of your feelings. Mandy Day-Calder explains how to achieve an emotional balance that works for you and your patients

I have vivid memories of nursing an elderly man whose wife visited every day and kept him well supplied with pristine pyjamas. I was bowled over by the aroma of his freshly laundered nightclothes. The smell instantly took me back to my childhood and evoked such strong, loving memories of my mum.

At the time she was alive, so I could happily reminisce while carrying on with my duties. But this isn't always the case. Sometimes, often without warning, painful emotions may be stimulated by the people and situations

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Switching off from patients is not a good idea, but neither is being at the mercy of your feelings. Mandy Day-Calder explains how to achieve an emotional balance that works for you and your patients


If you feel strong emotions arising when you are with a patient, try to shift your
emotional state. Picture: iStock

I have vivid memories of nursing an elderly man whose wife visited every day and kept him well supplied with pristine pyjamas. I was bowled over by the aroma of his freshly laundered nightclothes. The smell instantly took me back to my childhood and evoked such strong, loving memories of my mum.

At the time she was alive, so I could happily reminisce while carrying on with my duties. But this isn't always the case. Sometimes, often without warning, painful emotions may be stimulated by the people and situations you encounter at work.

Emotional triggers

Even if you have exceptional organisational skills and can run a ward like clockwork, you won't always be able to control how you feel. As well as reacting to what is happening around you, such as lack of resources or conflicts with colleagues, your emotions can be triggered by past experiences, good and bad.

If a patient's situation resonates too closely, you may experience an intense emotional reaction. Sometimes the trigger may be obvious. For example, if you have been recently bereaved. At other times, the trigger could be more subtle: a conversation with a patient's close relative may trigger a longing for a similar bond. 

Though you can't change anything that has happened in your past, you can change how you react to reminders. As a nurse, you have a duty to stay objective and maintain professional boundaries.

Emotional balance

This doesn't mean switching off how you feel, as this will inevitably impact on the care you offer. You are seeking what American author Judy Stone Goldman, whose blog focuses on where the professional and personal meet, describes as emotional balance: 'A state of emotional calm and mental organisation, even in the face of challenging or painful interactions.'

To achieve this, you must first identify what your triggers are and how you naturally react to them. Be patient, as you may not get these answers immediately, and exercises such as keeping a reflective diary can help.

Remember that your life experiences make you who you are. They give you the wisdom to become a more compassionate, empathic and tolerant nurse.

Tips to deal with painful emotions at work:

Find positive ways to cope when you sense a trigger: don't judge your emotions. If you blame yourself or others this will only increase the stress you are feeling and the likelihood that you will react in an uncontrolled way.

Press the pause button: if you feel strong emotions arising when you are with a patient, it may help to actively shift your emotional state. Giving yourself permission to pause your emotions can create some space. You aren't denying how you are feeling, you are just putting the emotions on hold until you feel safer to express them.

Visualise: think about how you would like to react and mentally rehearse this. Using a mantra can help, especially if you suddenly feel overwhelmed.

Breathe: taking a few deep breaths can have a restorative effect and help you feel more grounded.

Talk to colleagues: sharing how you feel can help you redirect your emotions more positively. If you think that you have unresolved grief or personal issues, you may want to seek more formal support.


Mandy Day-Calder is a freelance writer and life/health coach

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