Nurse, Heal Thyself – Spiritual Practices in the Midst of a Pandemic
For nurses on the frontline, the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially disparaging, challenging and even life altering. Nurses have worked extremely long hours faced not only with the excessive, increased number of deaths of their patients, who were dying alone, but also grieved the loss of coworkers. In a survey of 657 health care providers, of which more than half were nurses or nurse practitioners, 64 percent screened positive for acute stress, 40 percent had symptoms of anxiety, and 53 percent screened for depression.
For most individuals faced with a stressful life event, self-preservation becomes their goal. The concept of self-care within the nursing profession often has been misunderstood as being selfish, even though the American Nurses Code of Ethics, Provision 5, states that “each nurse has the same responsibility to care for self as he or she has to care for others.”
Self-care involves various strategies, including spirituality, to mitigate the stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms associated with the pandemic. Spiritual practices can assist people to make sense of their experiences of suffering, to instill hope, to provide comfort, to find inner strength, and to heal the spirit. Individuals may choose to use spiritual practices, either religious or nonreligious, to buffer the effects of stressful life events.
Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, which is nationally and internationally known for its excellence and philosophy of caring science, compared spirituality to religion in a graduate advanced practice nursing course. For the article, published in the journal Holistic Nursing Practice , they instructed nurses on the frontline who were in the midst of the pandemic to “make a date with themselves to engage in an activity that highlights their importance to them.” They were asked to fully engage in the activity, take as much time as needed and then record their reflections on the meaning of this activity for them.
In the article, Dawn M. Hawthorne, Ph.D., R.N., lead author, an associate professor and RN-BSN coordinator; and co-author Charlotte D. Barry, Ph.D., R.N., a professor, both in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, highlighted examples from five of their students who used various spiritual practices to better cope with the pandemic and resulting stress. For one nurse, because of her high exposure in the ICU, she had to send her son to stay with her mother to avoid exposing him and his classmates in daycare to COVID-19. To deal with her high levels of anxiety and stress she turned to meditation. For another nurse, the constant beeps, pages and alarms triggered a fight or flight response elicited by her sympathetic nervous system. Getting back to nature by water paddle boarding was her calming source.
In addition to a very stressful and demanding working environment, another nurse had to care for three small children because her husband suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with some deficiencies. Meditation helped her to find her inner strength and a better sense of health both mentally and physically. Fasting twice a week and spending time in a designated room reading her Bible, singing and praying, allowed another nurse to disconnect from technology and everyone else but God.
Individuals who hold religious beliefs often find comfort and strength in developing or maintaining a relationship with God, by trusting God in praying, watching religious TV programs, and attending church. Spiritual practices that are not affiliated with a religion that provide comfort and hope include connecting with self through reflection/meditation, reading inspirational texts, writing poetry, listening/creating music, painting/sculpting, and communing with nature.
“Our graduate nursing students in the course frequently reported that after engaging in caring for self as an assignment, it awakened a renewed spirit in them and intention to continue to make time to nurture themselves,” said Hawthorne. “The need of caring for self has been heightened during the stress of caring for so many patients who have succumbed during this pandemic.”
According to Hawthorne, spirituality is recognized as an essential factor in a person’s health and well-being and is integral to the process of growing through life events, such as illness, grief and bereavement. Spiritual practices allow us to connect to our inner self, which help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and isolation. She says that everyone has the ability to awaken a spiritual dimension with the inspiration and intention to care for self. Examples from nurses in the article illustrate that spiritual practices can be used effectively in times of stress such as a pandemic to reduce negativity that life stressors can create in all of us.
“This work is a great example of the importance of holistic health, which for some people might include spirituality, meditation and ways to find or enhance meaning and purpose in life, especially during times of heightened stress and uncertainty. I have spent the past 20 years researching this topic and these findings ring true for most people,” said Safiya George, Ph.D., dean and professor of FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing.